Who will be the next president of Colombia?

Senator Gustavo Petro of the left-wing Historic Pact coalition is running against businessman Rodolfo Hernández of the League of Anti-Corruption Governors movement for the presidency of Colombia in Sunday’s run-off vote

June 18, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
Gustavo Petro of the left-wing Historic Pact coalition is running against Rodolfo Hernández of the League of Anti-Corruption Governors movement for the presidency of Colombia in Sunday’s run-off. Photo: Archives

On Sunday, June 19, Colombians will return to the polls in the second round to elect the country’s new president and vice president for the period 2022-2026.

Senator Gustavo Petro and environmental activist Francia Márquez of the left-wing Historic Pact coalition are running against businessman Rodolfo Hernández and professor Marelen Castillo of the League of Anti-Corruption Governors movement for the presidency and vice presidency of Colombia, respectively. Petro and Márquez won the May 29 first round of elections with over 40% of the votes. Meanwhile, Hernández and Castillo followed them with over 28% of the votes.

The winners of Sunday’s run-off vote will replace conservative President Iván Duque and Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez on August 7, who are leaving the office with a record 80% disapproval rating. Petro and Hernández are both considered anti-establishment candidates and have promised to respond to the demands manifested in street protests in the last four years.

Petro has proposed to overhaul the economy and redistribute wealth to address social inequalities. Meanwhile, Hernández has focused his campaign on fighting corruption among the political elite. Both candidates have promised to reestablish diplomatic relations with the neighboring country, Venezuela, for the betterment of the people living on the border. Both have also vowed to respect and implement the 2016 peace agreements.

Petro and his running-mate Márquez are renowned and widely acclaimed leaders in the country. Whereas, Hernández and Castillo are both little known in Colombian politics. Nevertheless, recent opinion polls show that Petro and Hernández are technically tied in voting intentions. Political analysts believe that this is because the country’s right-wing, which has traditionally ruled the country and does not want Petro to win the elections, has joined forces with the independent candidate Hernández, whose overall views and agendas are right-leaning.

Former President and the founder of the ruling far-right Democratic Center party Alvaro Uribe; former presidential candidate for the right Federico Gutiérrez, who finished third in the race in May elections; and various other former Uribista government officials have announced their full support for Hernández. The centrist Sergio Fajardo, who secured the fourth place in the elections, has also announced his support for Hernández with some conditions. Meanwhile, his running mate Luis Gilberto Murillo has endorsed Petro, along with some other members of the party.

This policy of forming a broad anti-Petro coalition worked in the 2018 presidential elections. Some electoral experts say that it will work again. Meanwhile, others say that with a large number of voters seeking major change following the mismanagement of the pandemic and the worsening of the socio-economic crisis under the outgoing right-wing administration, the majority will avoid voting for Hernández and Petro could become Colombia’s first leftist president.

Here is a look at the two opposing tickets and what they represent.

The Historic Pact: Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez

61-year-old Petro is an economist and was a member of the April 19 Movement (M-19) guerilla group, demobilized in 1990. In 2002, he was elected to the House of Representatives and in 2006, he was elected to the Senate. In 2011, he was elected as the mayor of the capital city Bogotá (2012-2015). In 2018, after narrowly losing the run-off election to Duque, he secured a seat in the Senate, where he constantly condemned the national government’s neoliberal policies and tried to promote social reforms.

40-year-old Márquez is an Afro-descendant environmentalist and lawyer. She is nationally and internationally recognized for her work in defense of nature and communities. She represents the marginalized Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities and their struggles, and brings the proposals of social and popular movements to the government.

Petro and Márquez have proposed to gradually replace the economy’s dependence on extractive industries and fossil fuels, with agriculture. They have promised to fight inequalities, by introducing an agrarian reform and a progressive tax reform to support social programs in favor of the historically dispossessed and neglected minorities. They have also vowed to combat drug trafficking and paramilitary violence, by dismantling the illegal armed groups and increasing security in rural areas.

An increasing number of Colombians are sympathizing with the Petro-Márquez project. This has made them the enemy of the Colombian right-wing oligarchy. The two are being constantly targeted with smear campaigns in the mainstream media and on social media platforms.

Additionally, on June 15, four days before the elections, the National Police and the Attorney General’s Office unleashed a wave of mass arrests against social activists, alternative media journalists and others, who participated in the 2021 national strike against the Duque administration. Dozens of those took to the streets demanding structural changes were arrested in simultaneous operations across the country.

The police alleged that they were members of the so-called Front Line group, accused of participating in “acts of vandalism and terrorism” in the country. The National Police Director General Jorge Luis Vargas Valencia said that they had been arrested to prevent possible disturbances of public order during and after the elections. Vargas said that they had information that the Front Line would mobilize if Hernandez was elected. Meanwhile, social organizations have rejected the arrests as a strategy to intimidate and suppress those who have expressed their intention to vote for Petro.

Anti-corruption duo: Rodolfo Hernández and Marelen Castillo

77-year-old Hernández is a wealthy businessman and civil engineer, who made his fortune by building low-income housing. He was the mayor of Bucaramanga from 2016-2019. He is self-financing his campaign, and is running with a movement that he founded. He has pursued an aggressive campaign on social media platform TikTok, but has had a low appearance in mass media.

Meanwhile, 54-year-old Castillo is an Afro-descendant professor with an extensive academic background, who until recently was virtually unknown. She has been seen campaigning with Hernández on very few occasions. She has promised to transform public education from preschool to higher education, and increase economic opportunities for women.

Hernández is running as a populist on the slogan “don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t betray, and zero impunity.” Paradoxically, he is himself being investigated for alleged acts of corruption when he was Bucaramanga’s mayor. The Attorney General’s Office accused him of influencing a garbage collection contract to the Vitalogic RSU company. He faced two temporary suspensions during his term, for hitting a city councilor and for allegedly attempting to influence voters during an election.

Additionally, he has a long history of making questionable statements. In 2016, during a radio interview, he described Adolf Hitler as “a great German thinker,” but he later apologized. Recently, in an interview with a music station, Hernández made a misogynist comment and said that women should be better off at home because “nobody believes them in the government.” He has also called Venezuelan migrants “poor baby-making machines.”

Since the beginning of the election campaign, Hernández has been eluding debates and interviews. Various presidential debates, organized by different media organizations for the second round, had been canceled because he decided that he was not going to attend any of them. On June 15, The Superior Court of Bogotá ruled to hold a debate between him and Petro in defense of the citizen’s right to participate in politics. Hernández accepted, with demands and conditions, the court’s ruling, but hours later he refused to debate, blaming his opponent. The move was widely condemned by several rights organizations.

He has announced to lower taxes, eliminate tax on food, and reduce state spending by reducing bureaucracy. He also opposes fracking, and support abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights, as stipulated in the Constitution. Political experts believe that he will have to compromise with his proposals if he needs a continuous coalition with the right.

Preliminary results from these historic run-off elections are expected on the evening on June 19, 2022.