Colombia - Hernández surges
The right-wing populist former mayor of Bucaramanga has risen in the polls and could upend the race.
In an August 2021 newsletter, I wrote the following regarding the elections in Colombia and Chile:
Gustavo Petro is the clear frontrunner in Colombia with around a 35%-40% chance of winning. His odds of winning are much higher than any of his opponents’ but the combined odds of a “Not Petro” scenario are higher than the odds of Petro winning.
Instead, my point is that in both elections [Chile and Colombia] no candidate is over 50% likely to win. Additionally, in both elections, the possibility of a current longshot - someone outside the top two spots - surging in the final weeks and winning is much higher than normal.
Welcome to the final weeks of Colombia’s presidential election.
In the final polls before the first round, Rodolfo Hernández has surged and is now tied with Federico (Fico) Gutiérrez. Hernández has momentum and positive net approval. Fico has a political machine.
Source: Colombia Risk Analysis
The Hernández vs Gutiérrez race has been portrayed as two right-wing competitors facing off. However, while Hernández’s ideology is clearly right-wing (and more than a little xenophobic), he’s best viewed as an anti-system outsider who can win support from a range of voters outside of his ideology. In that sense, Hernández is somewhat similar to Bolsonaro in 2018. And unlike Bolsonaro, Hernández was a moderately successful mayor of a mid-size city who has a very strong geographic base of support.
Hypothetical second round polling suggests that Hernández would do better against Petro than Fico, with several polls showing Hernández in a statistical tie with Petro. That’s a major shift in the race as nearly all polling over the past few months has shown Petro with the lead in any hypothetical second round scenario. The viability to defeat Petro is something that will likely draw more voters to Hernández in the final week before the voting when there is no public polling and many voters are deciding.
Hernández skipped the final debate last night. On one hand, it might be a good strategy as it kept Fico and Petro fighting with each other rather than focusing on him. On the other hand, as a general rule, showing up is a key attribute voters want in politicians and this was a debate that could have grabbed attention for a candidate who a surprising number of voters barely know the name of (some polls last month showed his name recognition under 50%).
If Hernández tops Fico and makes it to the second round, Bucaramanga’s former mayor should have a clear edge over Petro. Petro’s campaign has focused all of its attention on Fico during the first round. Petro’s message as a change candidate is anti-incumbent, anti-Uribe along with a dose of Petro’s inevitability as the winner. Facing a surging and populist Hernández undermines all of those arguments. In addition, the anti-Petro vote will easily consolidate behind Hernández. If Hernández can beat Fico in round one, he gets the jump on Petro who is totally unprepared for that race.
Given all the focus on Petro and to a lesser extent Fico in recent months, there are significant questions about what a Hernández administration would look like and how it would govern. He’d have almost no initial support in the Congress and his anti-politician narrative will likely alienate many potential allies from both the traditional parties and the Petro-supporting left. As I wrote last August in that post linked above, lesser-known politicians who win due to the luck or skill of a late surge don’t have sustainable coalitions and they can fall as quickly as they rise. Just ask Pedro Castillo. Hernández could surprise us all with political or administrative skills that meet the moment, but the initial take is relatively pessimistic.
Sergio Guzmán and I have moved our webinar about Colombia’s elections to 15 June. It’s an opportunity to discuss the election and the potential policies of the next president. The cost is $100. You can sign up here or here. Video will be available for those who sign up but can’t make the time. We’re also available if your organization would rather hold a private call with one or both of us. Feel free to reach out if that is the case or you have any other questions.