Bucaramanga, Colombia – Millions of Colombian voters are poised to take a step into the unknown this week, as they invest their hopes in a controversial figure who they believe will help the country reinvent itself politically.
Rodolfo Hernandez shocked much of Colombia by producing a surprise, second-place result in the first round of the country’s presidential elections in late May, garnering 28 percent of the vote.
That secured his place in the upcoming June 19 runoff against left-wing, former armed group member Gustavo Petro.
“Hernandez was not seen as a viable contender until three weeks before the first round,” Sergio Guzman, a political analyst and director of the Colombia Risk Analysis consultancy group, told Al Jazeera.
The 77-year-old construction tycoon is not a typical presidential candidate in Colombia, where for the last few decades politics have been largely centered on Uribismo, a brand of conservatism ushered in by former President Alvaro Uribe, who still holds significant political sway.
Hernandez is aware of his differences and brandishes them with pride. He is brash, controversial, and foul-mouthed, and has built his presidential campaign around his position as a political outsider and straight-shooting “regular Joe”.
That is what appeals to a large segment of Colombia’s electorate, namely low-income and less educated voters, explained Guzman. “He represents a frustration with the entire system,” Guzman said.
“A lot of low-income and uneducated Colombians, which make up the bulk of the voting population, resonate with that. They’re not very into details, they don’t care about fancy programs or fancy universities, they care about an old man that can get s**t done, and that’s the image that Hernandez has tried to sell quite effectively.”
Hernandez, the former mayor of the mid-sized city of Bucaramanga, about 400km (250 miles) north of the capital Bogota, has distanced himself from the traditional political circles and has run an unorthodox campaign upheld by populist rhetoric and an ambiguous political programme.
The septuagenarian held few political rallies and instead campaigned favorably through his carefully crafted social media channels. He has dubbed himself the “King of Tik Tok”, a platform on which he has amassed more than 500,000 followers.
Despite being initially seen as a right-wing candidate, he has clarified his presidential program and expressed his support for liberal policies such as marriage equality, widespread drug legalization, abortion rights, and opposition to fracking.
He has also expressed support for a 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group, as well as his willingness to negotiate with armed groups still active in the country.
“[Hernandez] is a work in progress, he’s in constant evolution,” Angel Beccassino, the candidate’s chief political adviser, told Al Jazeera. “Rodolfo’s program is not specific on several topics.”
Beccassino classified Hernandez as a candidate of “a new version of centrism” and described him as “a man of wisdom rather than knowledge”.
The candidate has refused to participate in any of the presidential debates throughout the campaign, however, leaving many questions as to what type of president he will be, should he win Sunday’s vote.
On June 9, Hernandez also canceled his remaining public appearances over alleged fears for his life and remained in Miami for a number of days.
Frustration with status quo
The vote comes as the Colombian electorate is aching for political change after the country saw enormous, nationwide protests last year demanding an end to structural inequalities and police violence. Outgoing conservative President Ivan Duque has since seen his popularity plummet, reaching a 73 percent disapproval rating earlier this year.
“Colombians don’t want a career politician right now,” said Will Freeman, a PhD candidate at Princeton University in the United States and an expert on politics and anti-corruption in Latin America.
And both Hernandez and Petro are “alternatives to the political status quo”, Freeman said.
“The reasons that people are voting for Hernandez, despite his gaffes, are the same reasons that people are voting for Petro,” he told Al Jazeera. “In both cases, people are saying, ‘Things are very bad right now, we cannot afford another few years of continuity so we have to gamble on something different even though that comes with a lot of uncertainty.’”
Amid the lack of clarity in Hernandez’s presidential plans, one promise has remained constant: his determination to solve the country’s endemic corruption. He has often pointed the finger at Colombia’s political elite and labeled them “robbers, thieves, scoundrels [and] delinquents”.
“He gives me confidence because he wants to fight corruption,” Alma Osorio Aguirre, a Hernandez supporter from Bucaramanga and volunteer on his campaign, told Al Jazeera.
“He is a self-made man who has come from the bottom, like many of us. He is outspoken, confrontational, and says things as they are.”
Nevertheless, Hernandez is the subject of an active investigation and has been charged with corruption over alleged irregularities in the distribution of garbage collection contracts to a company linked to his son.
Hernandez and his campaign have denied the charges. “It’s an investigation that has certain weaknesses,” Beccassino said, without going into further detail. A trial is scheduled for mid-July.
“The Engineer”, as Hernandez is also known among his supporters due to his training as a civil engineer, is no stranger to controversy.
He has come under fire for making sexist remarks and xenophobic comments against Venezuelan migrant women, for labeling a local fire department “fat and lazy”, and for expressing his admiration for “the great German thinker Adolf Hitler”. He later corrected himself on the latter point and said he meant to say Albert Einstein.
Earlier on in the campaign, he said he did not know what the Colombian region of Vichada was, only to go on to win there weeks later. And in an interview with The Washington Post, he compared his supporters to the “brainwashed” 9/11 hijackers.
In 2018, he was suspended as Bucaramanga’s mayor for slapping a councilman in the face on video. “His personality is that of an autocrat, of a little emperor,” John Claro, the city councilor he slapped, told Al Jazeera in an interview this month.
“[He’s] a simplistic, erratic, demagogic, misogynist candidate with a shallow program. He gets easily carried away by his emotions and more so when you tell him the truth, as I did,” Claro said.
According to the Inspector General’s Office, Hernandez is currently facing 33 open investigations for alleged actions, including defamation and workplace harassment.
‘We want a transformation’
Others have questioned whether Hernandez will be able to deliver on his presidential campaign promises. While campaigning for mayor of Bucaramanga, he distributed letters vowing to build new housing for low-income residents, a promise he never fulfilled.
“I’m outraged by the deceit of his letter,” resident Jaime Nunez Duarte, who kept the letter touting Hernandez’s “20,000 Happy Homes” program, told Al Jazeera. “I believed the letter but more than anything I believed Hernandez. It was a strategy to obtain votes. A perfect form of disappointment.”
Yet Hernandez’s track record and the string of controversies have not deterred much of the electorate, spurred on by their desire for a clean break from the political system, from backing him.
“Life is really bad in Colombia for most people right now and it’s gotten so much worse in the last two years. So, do they care that he has some gaffes? I’m sure that’s not on the top of anyone’s mind,” Freeman said.
Polls are predicting a very close battle between Hernandez and Petro in next Sunday’s runoff, with both sets of supporters frustrated by the same issues but divided over who is best suited to solve them.
There is also a reticence among sectors of the electorate in Colombia – a country that has never been governed by a left-wing government and remains scarred by decades of armed conflict involving radical, left-wing armed groups – to trust Petro, as many believe his political agenda is too radical and worry about his past as a fighter.
“We want a transformation, we no longer want more of the same,” Fernando Plata, a local Bucaramanga resident, told Al Jazeera. “We want change, we want to see an engineer as president, not a guerrilla.”