Colombia’s election season has so far seen a range of controversies in which the role of international observers has been critical. These included a systematic failure in the vote count of the legislative elections, denying over one million votes before a partial recount. And these included the sudden decision to prevent international auditing of the software code used to count the votes in the first round of the presidential elections two months later.
Now, two candidates remain in the running for Colombia’s presidency, representing two radically different political traditions and political coalitions — and the risk to the democratic process remains high.
The first candidate is Gustavo Petro, member of the PI Council, former mayor of Bogotá, and sitting Senator in Colombia. Along with VP candidate Francia Marquez, they represent the ‘Historic Pact’ or Pacto Histórico, a broad front of progressive forces forged over years of negotiation and collaboration in the fight for democratic transformation.
The second is Rodolfo Hernández, an erratic and blustering former mayor of Bucaramanga. Hernández has avoided interviews and debates to run his campaign via a series of vapid Tiktok videos spread via Whatsapp and Facebook. After recent gaffes in the media, Hernández declared he would be conducting his campaign from Miami, USA until election day, only to reverse this decision immediately. His singular campaign promise is to prosecute and jail corrupt politicians — despite the fact that he is currently under investigation for corruption himself.
However, beyond these quirks of personality, Rodolfo has a record of xenophobia, misogyny, and authoritarian behavior that represent a major threat to Colombia’s democratic institutions and vulnerable populations.
He has said that women should stay out of politics and simply offer “support from home.” He has called Venezuela a “baby making factory,” alleging that Venezuelan migrants have brought poverty, “syphilis and AIDS” to Colombia. He physically assaulted a member of the Bucaramanga City Council during his tenure as mayor in 2018 and has said, “I wipe my ass with the law.”
When asked in a radio interview which historical figures he most admired, he replied, “I am a follower of a great German thinker by the name of Adolf Hitler,” — a statement he later retracted to say that he confused him with Albert Einstein.
The rise of Rodolfo Hernández may signal the decline of Colombia’s establishment right-wing forces affiliated with the former president, Álvaro Uribe. The candidate of the hard-right Uribismo establishment failed to pass into the second round for the first time in decades.
However, even before votes had been fully counted on election night, the leadership of the Uribista right-wing immediately joined the Hernández campaign. The campaign is attractive to Uribista forces not only as an untarnished third-party vehicle to defeat the left, but also as an empty vessel that can be filled with their own interests and apparatchiks.
Fears of paramilitary intimidation, political violence — especially assassination of candidates — and insufficient guarantees in the integrity of the vote count all remain. Yet this election also represents a historic opportunity for Colombia.
For the first time, Colombians have the chance to vote for a society that invests in peace instead of civil war, health, education, workers, the well-being of women, deeper political and economic regional integration of Latin America, and in real climate action.
Our obligation is to defend that vote — and the democratic process by which it finds its free and fair expression. The Progressive International will be on the ground in Colombia throughout the week, monitoring and scrutinizing the development of the electoral process. Stay tuned.