After Colombia’s election surprise, a populist TikTok star poses stiff competition

Photo: Mauricio Pinzo


In a shock to a political system long dominated by traditional parties and machine politics, an eccentric, 77-year-old populist who promises drastic budget cuts and jail for corrupt officials is now leading the race for the presidency.

By WLRNJohn Otis

Jun 15, 2022

Unknown to most Colombians until just a few months ago, Rodolfo Hernández, a real estate mogul and a former mayor, garnered enough votes in the May 29 first-round election to earn a spot in Sunday’s runoff against leftist Gustavo Petro.

The latest polls show Hernández neck and neck with Petro, a former guerrilla fighter and veteran politician who had been the clear front-runner all year long.

“Thank you, Colombians,” Hernández said in a video message to his supporters after beating four other candidates and finishing runner-up to Petro in the first round of voting. “I am counting on you to win the runoff.”

The video, shot from Hernández’s kitchen with appliances and a pot-filled stove in the background, was in keeping with his austere image. Although Hernández earned millions in real estate, he says he’s not spending much on his campaign.

You might find Rodolfo Hernández on TikTok

Rather than barnstorming the country giving speeches, he communicates via TikTok videos and softball interviews, usually focusing on government graft, which he claims is the root of Colombia’s problems. In a recent interview on Colombian TV, he said that nearly all politicians were “traitors, liars, clowns and hypocrites and we are going to kick them out.”

If he wins, he plans to hold a simple inaugural in a poor town, saying normal swearing-in ceremonies at the presidential palace with hundreds of guests waste taxpayer money on caviar, Champagne and whisky. Despite his age, Hernández says he will be on the job from dawn until dusk to cram 5 1/2 years of work into a four-year presidential term.

“Colombia is a beautiful country that has been run by thieves,” he said in the TV interview, “and the results have been fatal.”

Gustavo Petro aims to be the first leftist president

Hernández’s rival, Petro, is trying to become Colombia’s first-ever left-wing president. Thus, no matter who wins, the incoming leader will take the country in a new direction. All this, according to analysts, is the result of decades of corruption and unkept promises by traditional politicians as well as the COVID-19 pandemic that threw millions of Colombians into poverty.

However, 62-year-old Petro is a former Bogotá mayor and a longtime opposition senator who is on his third run for the presidency. Compared to Hernández, he is old news, says Lawrence J. Gumbiner, a former U.S. diplomat who has advised Hernández on international affairs.

The feeling among many voters, Gumbiner says, is that “all these guys who have been around all these years, we don’t like any of them. We don’t really know who this guy [Hernández] is but we’re so sick of everybody who has been around all these years that we are willing to roll the dice on him.”

Adding to Hernández’s rise is lingering fear of Petro. Business leaders are worried about Petro’s plans to gradually phase out the production of oil, the country’s main export, to renegotiate trade deals with countries like the United States, and reform the pension system. Petro has also pledged to forge closer ties to the authoritarian regime in neighboring Venezuela.

Hernández got endorsements, including from rival candidates

Partly as a result, Hernández has received a wave of endorsements from establishment parties and politicians, including Federico Gutiérrez. He was the conservative, pro-government candidate who finished third in the May 29 vote. He claims Petro could become a leftist dictator, like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, and in his concession speech he urged Colombians to back Hernández.

Read More: WLRN – After Colombia’s election surprise, a populist TikTok star poses stiff competition

La Patilla in English