When John Claro, an opposition councilor in the Colombian city of Bucaramanga, had a disagreement with the local mayor over the misconduct of a colleague, he was left with a red face and a buzz in the ‘ear.
In a video of the incident, the mayor can be seen quickly losing his temper, standing up and unleashing a flood of profanity. Then he steps forward and slaps Claro hard in the face.
That mayor was Rodolfo Hernández, and on Sunday he could be elected president of Colombia.
“It seems to me that he is not well mentally,” Claro told the Guardian. “I consider him a sociopath.”
Hernández, a 77-year-old businessman, likes to offend. He regularly posts crass rants on social media, admitted to not knowing much about Colombia and once described Adolf Hitler as “a great German thinker”.
He affirmed that “the ideal would be for women to devote themselves to the education of their children” and described Venezuelan women as “factories of poor children”.
He was initially written off as an eccentric foreigner, but last month shocked the country by qualifying for the second round of Sunday’s election, where he will face Gustavo Petro, a former urban guerrilla, and what has been described as a battle of strangers.
Hernández shares traits with the growing gallery of personalist populists: like Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, he used social media (in his case, TikTok) to reach undecided voters; like the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro, he delights in crude political incorrectness; like Donald Trump, he has a history in business, a dubious comb and a platform that is strong in emotion but lacking in detail.
“You can compare Hernández to Louis XIV, the French king who said ‘the state is me,'” said Claro, who backs Petro’s campaign. “He says what people want to hear, he’s erratic, he’s a demagogue, he’s ironic, he’s rude, he’s a mythomaniac.”
If Petro wins, he would become the first left-wing president in a country where, for most of the last century, political power has involved power-sharing pacts between right and center-right.
But Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá, has also been accused of authoritarianism, and his personal story alienates many in a conservative country where the left has long been tarred by association with the many guerrilla groups that fought the forces of the state and their paramilitary allies for decades.
While Petro was the favorite for most of the campaign – and took 40% in the first round – many of his opponents are now expected to line up behind Hernández, giving the self-proclaimed ‘King of TikTok’ septuagenarian a strong chance of winning. . A recent poll found the two virtually tied.
Hernández was virtually unknown when he won 28% of the vote, after a social media campaign heavy on bashing “elite” but light on politics.
One of Hernández’s proposals during the election campaign was to take any Colombian who had not been to one of his two coasts to see the sea. He posted videos in which he posed shirtless with models holding up a Catholic cross, or sprinkling salt on a steak in the style of internet sensation Salt Bae.
He flip-flopped on a host of issues, walked out on talks when they go where he doesn’t like it, and promised an austere, protectionist state. He decamped to Miami at the height of the campaign, saying he could be killed if he remained in Colombia. And he is being investigated for corruption while campaigning on an anti-corruption platform.
But more than any particular policy, what can win the support of the Colombian establishment is the fact that he is not Petro.
“Anti-Petro voters explain Rodolfo Hernández, because in Colombia having been a guerrilla weighs a lot – especially in conservative and right-wing circles,” said Pedro Piedrahita Bustamente, professor of political science at the University of Medellín.
“We must remember that the political culture, especially in Colombia, is marked by apathy; it is marked by dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and politicians,” he said. “Rodolfo Hernández embodies the non-traditional politician, although he is now supported by traditional political clans. And his style is characteristic of the culture of violence in this country.
But those considering voting for Hernández see it as a refreshing break from the status quo — unhesitatingly to the left.
“He’s a human being with mistakes, but he’s able to recognize them,” said Hector Guillermo Parra, an electronics engineer. “He looks for quick solutions to problems without spending too many resources and tries to reduce debt with attractive proposals.”
In Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in the world – where “engineer” is an honorary title when applied to a wealthy man like Hernández – the politics of brute force never seemed far away, especially when the poor are crying out for change.
In mass protests last year, dozens died and hundreds were injured by a police force unleashed by current president Iván Duque, who is constitutionally barred from re-election. Colombian military and intelligence agencies have a long history of spying on perceived and real enemies.
A peace deal signed in 2016 with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerrillas – which officially ended a war that has killed more than 260,000 people and forced millions from their homes – has implemented hesitantly, for which the incumbent government was blamed.
Violence continues to plague the countryside, where environmental activists and human rights defenders – collectively known as social leaders – are being killed at higher rates than anywhere else in the world.
“We’ve had authoritarianism over the past 20 years, and strong, crass personalities are connecting with the electorate,” said María Emma Wills, a prominent political scientist. “It partly shows you the values of Colombian society, doesn’t it?”
He attempted to backtrack on some of his most inflammatory comments since heading to the second round of elections. He said of his Hitler remark that he was actually talking about Albert Einstein and that he had promised to promote equal pay for women and the absence of discriminatory clauses in contracts, but few of his detractors are convinced.
“These kind of comments he makes are not only horrible and disgusting, but they reflect a part of Colombian society that still thinks women should stay in the kitchen,” said Ana Maria Villas, a street artist from Bogota. “But I’m hopeful that Colombia’s young population will stop letting these kinds of people get close to power.”
For Claro, the adviser who literally felt the impact of Hernández, the alarm bells have been ringing for a while. “He would take us back centuries,” he said. “Until the Middle Ages. »