Petro’s pyrrhic victory upset by Rodolfo Hernández

Gustavo Petro votes in Bogotá/Colombia Humana.

During a voting day with one of the lowest abstention rates for a recent election, 21 million Colombians – from an eligible 38 million electorate – cast their ballots in what was also characterized by relative peace and tranquility across the country, with one homicide and 21 arrests, confirmed Defense Minister Diego Molano.

As an ebb and flow of voters continued throughout the day until 4:00pm when voting stations closed, for many watching this historic election race, frontrunner Gustavo Petro was either going to clinch victory with 50% plus one vote, or face right-wing candidate Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez for a second round, with the election decided on June 19.

Despite the first bulletins from the National Registrar showing a slight lead for the 47-year-old former mayor of Medellín over progressive Gustavo Petro, the much-expected gains for “Fico” began to dissipate, and within an hour of polls closing, the percentage points for the former mayor of Bucaramanga and independent Rodolfo Hernández began to surge, securing his second place in the race.

Even though the 77-year-old engineer and representative of the Governor’s Anti-Corruption League was showing strong numbers in recent polls, few believed that Rodolfo could outpace “Fico” given that he was riding a wave of popular support and maintained more than a 10-point lead in polls or his rival. Rodolfo, who ran a social media driven campaign, and with few public appearances, was convinced, however, that he would face Petro in a second-round of voting and become the next President of Colombia.

In a seismic shift away from the political strongholds of Bogotá and Antioquia, the “dark horse” candidate from the department Santander reaped 5.9 million votes in six months as a first-time candidate, compared to Petro’s 8.5 million in his second attempt for the presidency.

While clearly the leftist politician and former Marxist guerrilla came out on top, his victory is pyrrhic, given that when he faced-off against current President Iván Duque in 2018, he won 8 million compared to Duque’s 10.3 million. After four years on the campaign trail, Petro’s additional 500,000 votes is hardly the endorsement he expected from the electorate, and put as a total percentage: 40.32%. With an improvised victory speech, almost two hours after the final vote count, Petro called on his base to go out and convince an additional 2 million new voters that he represents “real change.”

In a stark contrast to Petro’s hotel rally, Hernández “thanked Colombia” in a cellphone video message recorded from his kitchen. “Today a nation won that works for a living, a country of honest citizens,” he said. He then took a jab at the political elites – including Petro – stating that his victory “is the end of those who pretend to govern in longevity.”

Rodolfo Hernández votes in Bucaramanga.

As a real estate entrepreneur and pro-business leader, Rodolfo Hernández represents the economic aspirations of Colombia’s middle-class, and one increasingly silenced by political extremism and shunned by traditional parties. With broad generational support, Rodolfo Hernández’s 5.8 million votes will more than double after “Fico” accepted his third-place standing, and told supporters that his vote on June 19 goes to Hernández.

In what will most likely be a complete shift in votes from the right to the Hernández camp, as well as many of the 888,000 votes that backed centrist Sergio Fajardo, over the next three weeks the ultra-conservative and political outsider could lead in the polls. And this in itself would be first for Petro.

Even though Petro has not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, if one looks to the maths, Hernández has potentially 11 million votes, and higher voter acceptance than Duque four years ago. His victory wouldn’t be a landslide, however, but could cement four years of a populist mandate, and end the sectarianism of Petro’s political legacy.