A Polarized Colombia Elects a New President on Sunday

Daniel Coronell: “We are going to have a divided Colombia, suffering the consequences of polarization.”

Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernandez. Photo: AFP

Colombia will choose on Sunday between two populists: the “Colombian Trump” Rodolfo Hernandez, and the left-wing ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro.

By Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – The builder Rodolfo Hernandez was a stranger in Colombia until a year ago, except in the region of Santander and in Bucaramanga where he was mayor.  However, on Sunday, June 19, he will seek the presidency of Colombia, in tightly contested election with leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, according to journalist Daniel Coronell, president of Revista Cambio.

Coronel asserts that the South American country is divided and will suffer the consequences of polarization, affected by the tendency of Colombians who think that they are blocking Hernandez by voting for Petro, or vice versa.

“There is a huge challenge and great uncertainty. It is a fact, by having the two finalists that the Colombian election has, that the country is looking for a change. It may even be for the worse, but it is looking for change,” says Coronell in this interview with Carlos Fernando Chamorro for the television program Esta Noche.

The latest polls point to a technical tie between Petro and Hernandez, what is at stake in this very polarized election for Colombia?

Colombia is choosing between two options, neither of which convinces the majority. What is emerging is a huge number of “no” votes, that is, people who think they are voting for Petro to block the way of Hernandez, or for Hernandez to block Petro.

How did we get to this? It is a complicated story. Basically, there is a big displacement of the center to focus on the choice of two forms of populism.

Does either of the two have an advantage? What weight will the undecided voter have in the conclusion of the process?

Polls in Colombia are forbidden after the Sunday before the elections, that is a week before. The last big poll published, by the Yanhaas company, gives a noticeable advantage to Petro.

There are others in which the technical tie persists, always within the margin of error. In some of them Petro has an advantage, in others Hernandez.  But in general, I would say that it is an unknown that will be decided on Sunday, where, in spite of the little enthusiasm awakened by the candidates, it is possible that abstention will be lower than what has been historically registered.

As far as the percentage of undecided voters, it is between 10 and 16 percent, depending on the poll. It is considerable margin, and one that can be quite substantial, and one that can settle any tie as close as the one we are seeing.

What does Hernandez’s candidacy represent, because very little is known about his government proposals?

Hernandez is a person who, until a few months ago, was well known in his region, in Santander, and particularly in Bucaramanga and its metropolitan area. He is a construction engineer who made a very significant fortune, in Colombian terms. Close to 100 million dollars which, in a country that is not very rich like Colombia, is huge. In many things, people compare him to Trump.

You know that, at the dollar exchange rate, for every dollar you get 4,000 Colombian pesos, so they say that Hernandez is like Trump, divided by the dollar exchange rate. You give 4,000 Hernandez’s and they give you one Trump. That is the popular comparison. He is a very exotic man, with sometimes very humorous remarks, who has been able to connect with young people through social networks. Who has a great ability to communicate, but he also has very dark passages in his life.

An investigation for corruption, where he has already been called to trial could possibly prevent him from holding the presidency. In addition, some recordings show him as a person disrespectful of the law. In one of them, he tells one of the members of his Bucaramanga team that he does not care about the law. He also has machista speeches. In short, a series of things that are very particular.

On the other hand, his popularity is driven by the rejection that a good part of the Colombian population has for Petro.

Since the beginning of the second round, Petro has made an attempt to place himself if not towards the center, at least towards stability, could “Petrofobia” be defeated and Colombia elect a leftist president like Chile with Boric against Kast, for example?

The political and mathematic possibility does exist. Obviously, Petro is fighting against many ghosts of his own past and of Colombia’s past. From the country’s past, because it was marked by 60 years of armed conflict with leftist guerrillas, and those guerrillas are seen as a factor of criminal activity.

The dreamy vision of the guerrilla who championed social rights disappeared in Colombia many years ago. The course of action of drug trafficking as a financing mechanism of this war and the long coexistence of the guerrilla with drug-trafficking led to the loss of that idealism.

On the other hand, Petro availed himself of an amnesty and has complied. He has been for more than 30 years in legality. He has never tried to return to arms, he has had a political career with its ups and downs, with popular and unpopular episodes, where nobody can say that he has tried to return to arms. He has been a brilliant representative to the Chamber of Deputies and Senator of the Republic, but not so as Mayor of Bogota.

The administrative experience, although his supporters defend it a lot, but I believe that most people of Bogota had a difficult experience. It that mix of characteristics, where there are some country issues and others of his own personality, Petro has a lot of people who support him, and a bunch of people think he is the worst thing that can happen to Colombia. From this election we are not going to have a unified country, we are going to have a very divided country that will end up suffering the consequences of this polarization.

This election could be very close, is the electoral system reliable?

The Colombian electoral system has been very questioned recently, even though it has been quite reliable. Since 1970, under the National Electoral Council and the National Civil Registry, there has not been a big fraud scandal in a presidential election.

There are always small manifestations of local frauds, but it was not something that tipped the balance. However, this time the National Civil Registry is very discredited for one reason: there was a lot of controversy in the congressional elections, due to a design flaw in a report form, 550,000 votes that were for Petro’s movement were not evaluated, and that ended up giving him four more senators for a 20 senator bench.

Despite the fact that the National Electoral Council asked for an independent international audit, the Duque government did not move to get the resources or the approvals for this to go ahead. So, the registry ends up auditing itself, which generates distrust. In the last hours, we had a public confrontation between Petro and the registry. This, four days before the elections, is not something that helps to calm the mood.

Both candidates are running under the banner of change, regardless of who wins, what kind of challenge is there for governance in Colombia?

There is an enormous challenge and great uncertainty. It is a fact, because of the two finalists in the Colombian election, that the country is looking for a change. It may even be for the worse, but it is looking for it.

There was a big slide of impoverishment of the middle class in Colombia. It is a sector of the population that, with a lot of effort, education, savings, and work, had managed to escape from poverty. So (now) it is again at those living standards, some of them are due to causes that are attributable to the government, due to measures that were not taken, or were taken badly, by Duque and those who preceded him.

Others because of the international context, the pandemic, but this impoverishment of the middle class placed thousands of Colombians in the difficult circumstance of having nothing to lose. When the people have nothing to lose, they usually opt for alternatives.

Where is the political center and what impact can it have on the result?

Theoretically, when you do the math, when people want to define whether they are of the center or of the right or left, most to them say they are of center. The center was imbodied by a candidate, Sergio Fajardo.

On the one hand, he became the target of both the left and the right. Petro’s supporters saw that if their contender was someone from former president Alvaro Uribe, they would win because of his well-deserved discredit.

Uribe and his supporters, on the other hand, thought that the only way to win was to face off with Petro. Both concentrated on shooting at the center, and, in addition, they found the invaluable help of the center that committed so many and such a variety of mistakes that it was practically a live political suicide.

If someday, an academic wants a case study of the elimination of a political option on account of its own supporters, he/she has to look at the experience of what was the Coalicion de la Esperanza (Coalition of Hope) in Colombia. It was not a coalition, nor did it give any hope, it was a suicide that ended up promoting extremes.

The coin is up in the air, is it possible to foresee on which side it will fall?

It is difficult. I would say that there seems to be more desire for change on the side of the left and that this could end up consolidating Petro’s victory. But with four days to go I do not dare to predict. This is an unprecedented situation in Colombia, and it is also possible that Hernandez will end up winning. One or the other will have enormous consequences in the institutional future of Colombia.

We are going to have to support the institutional apparatus in Colombia a lot, the system of checks and balances for the existence of a way to moderate the power of these two leaders. Petro is more institutionalist, but they both tend to be people who decide by themselves and with certain attitudes tending to individualism.

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