© Reuters. Center-right Colombian presidential candidate Rodolfo Hernandez of the Governors Anti-Corruption League displays a ball as he casts his vote at a polling station during the first round of the presidential election in Bucaramanga, Colombia on May 29, 2022. REUT


Written by Julia Simes Cope

FUSAGASAGA, Colombia (Reuters) – Colombian leftist Gustavo Petro is leading the race for the country’s presidency ahead of the second round of elections after inspiring his supporters to envision a fairer and greener country, they say.

But former M-19 rebels’ promises of radical change may not now resonate with those who want to break with Colombia’s traditional political machine: Petro’s surprise rival in the June 19 run-off will be Rodolfo Hernandez – the 70-year-old with one populist. They campaigned as aloof and independent anti-establishment.

Petro won 40.3% of the vote in Sunday’s first round, while Hernandez captured 28.2%. He was followed by Federico Gutierrez from the center-right, who gained 23.9% and was seen as a continuation contender, widely expected to challenge Petro in the second round.

Hernandez, known for his videos on TikTok, has promised to promote law and order and create jobs, although details of his plans have been sparse.

Petro, the 62-year-old former mayor of the capital, Bogota, is running his third run for the presidency with reforms he says will begin to correct centuries of social injustice.

Petro said at a gathering in the farming town of Fusagasuga earlier this month.

Petro has built much of his rhetoric around the need for change, portraying Gutierrez as representing the same political interests as unpopular current president Evan Duque and his mentor, former political heavyweight Alvaro Uribe.

“What we should be afraid of is not changing the country,” Petro said.

Analysts said anti-establishment rhetoric by Hernandez, the former mayor of Bucaramanga, and his promise to end civil servant privileges and frugal governance, would shatter Petro’s narrative, particularly given that Gutierrez and many of his supporters will now support Hernandez.

How did each candidate perform in the first round of voting in Colombia’s presidential election? https://graphics.reuters.com/COLOMBIA-ELECTION/zgvomeykjvd/chart.png

“This is the scenario that Petro fears the most,” said Daniela Cuellar, senior advisor at FTI Consulting NYSE in Bogota.

Petro Speech works best when it paints itself in contrast to the elite candidate. This dialectical discourse fades somewhat when confronted with another candidate from outside the inner circles of power who also promises change.”

Petro is likely to try to stress that despite Hernandez’s calls for an end to corruption, the 77-year-old is under investigation for bribery, said Sergio Guzman, founder of Columbia Risk Analysis.

The attorney general’s investigation relates to allegations that Hernandez interfered with a garbage collection tender when he was mayor to help a company his son defended.

“It might work with the centrists, but their votes are clearly slim,” Guzman said, citing the low first-round results of three other candidates, who collectively polled less than 6%. Fico voters and Uribe’s supporters will vote for Hajar before voting for Petro.

“Petro has three weeks to turn his story on its head … It’s unlikely to work,” Guzman said.

going out with the old

Petro supporters of all ages have told Reuters they believe he is the candidate to bring about change in the Andean country, particularly through his environmental policies — including a ban on new oil deals — and his promise to offer free public university studies.

Santiago Castillo, a 20-year-old social sciences student who attended the Fusagasuga Rally, said the free tuition would be life-changing.

“Access to education is really hard because we can’t make ends meet,” says Castillo, who also works as a waiter. “With him, we know we don’t have to kill ourselves or stop sleeping.”

Waving a large Petro flag, Olgia Dipollo came to the rally with her adult grandson.

“We’ve had the same vision for years, not four years but four decades,” she said.

But Hernandez’s supporters say it’s the civil engineer, who says he made a $100 million fortune through his construction company despite humble beginnings, who better understands the change Colombians want.

“Despite his flaws, I hope he can reduce corruption,” Gloria Gracia, 61, a gym and dance teacher who voted for Hernandez, told Reuters, adding that she liked him to fund his campaign himself and that rural communities valued him.

Hernandez’s father, a farmer, had been held captive for months by FARC fighters decades earlier, while his daughter Juliana was kidnapped by ELN rebels in 2004 and is presumed killed in captivity.

Like Petro, Hernandez has said he will fully implement the 2016 peace deal with the FARC rebels and seek peace talks with the National Liberation Army.