Colombia run-off: Implications of a Petro vs. Hernández win

Gustavo Petro Urrego and Rodolfo Hernández Suárez are set to go head-to-head in the second round of the presidential election in Colombia, scheduled for this Sunday 19 June. Polls, like CNC and Invamer, show the election too close to call, so let’s focus instead on how things might change depending on who wins:

Gustavo Petro

Petro is a long-time, leftist politician, who solidified his position in the political spotlight after he lost the 2018 presidential elections with over 8 million votes. He was a key figure in the 2019 and 2021 protests across the country, but his activism began decades earlier when he joined the leftist M-19 guerilla group at 17 years old in 1977. Later captured, tortured and imprisoned, he would go on to become a proponent of the peace treaty between the government and the M-19 that culminated in the 1991 constitution. Petro’s recent political experience includes serving two terms in the Senate, two in the lower house, and three years as mayor of Bogotá.

  • On politics

Petro is extremely popular among young voters, across the western coast of Colombia, and among afro-Colombians (partially thanks to his running mate, Francia Márquez). Petro is a seasoned politician, who, given his historical connection to the M-19 and decades of political experience as a key figure of the left, likely knows some less than desirable characters regionally. While he has publicly distanced himself from regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, his ideology has plenty in common with left-wing governments in Argentina, Chile, and Mexico.

Petro needs support at the legislative level to make any significant policy changes in the country — his Pacto Histórico coalition does not have this yet. Legislative roadblocks should be expected under both Petro and Hernández, but it is possible Petro will have an easier time than his rival. If he does face legislative pushback, the executive branch alone can pause extractive licensing and create new regulatory barriers. Internationally, we can almost certainly expect a shift in US-Colombia relations with Petro in power, a definite concern in Washington.

  • On business

On paper, Petro represents a significant risk to wealthy Colombians and many of the manufacturing and extractive companies operating in the country. He considers widespread hunger in the country to be an economic emergency and intends to pay for that, along with other social programs, via increased taxes on the wealthy and companies. He also claims he will pause all oil exploration and wants to move the country away from fossil fuel use — admirable goals in the race against global warming, but goals that ignore the leading role these industries play for Colombia’s GDP.

To be more explicit — his efforts to reduce poverty risk undermining the profits and tax revenues of the same businesses he needs to pay for his social programs. Moreover, if he’s able to convert his plans into action, they could lead to one of three things — inflation (a lo argentino), legislative roadblocks (a lo chileno), or poorly-funded social programs (a lo mexicano). Excessive government spending and the inflation route would catalyze a path to declining approval given the exogenous inflationary pressures generated by COVID-19-related supply constraints, Venezuelan migration, and the war in Ukraine.

Because of Petro’s proposed policies, businesses should be prepared for significant oversight at the federal level, with department level oversight varying by location — similar to operating in Mexico at this time.

  • On human security

Colombia has experienced several widespread protests over the past three years. With widening inequality, decreasing purchasing power, and limited job opportunities, many low income Colombians need a lifeline and believe Petro can provide it. A win for Petro likely keeps people off the streets, albeit temporarily. This is because he will have to keep his base happy so they do not take to the street at the same scale like during country-wide protests in 2019 and 2021. It’s worth noting here that if Petro does not win, strikes are likely throughout the country.

In terms of migration, Petro is expected to maintain President Ivan Duque’s current posture which allows Venezuelans to migrate into the country and obtain temporary status. This should not be overlooked, as policies that ensure proper documentation and legal work keep migration-related crime rates from spiking. Petro, like Hernández, intends to re-establish diplomatic relations with Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.

Like most left-leaning politicians, Petro emphasizes the root causes of crime — education, inequality, lack of job opportunity — largely focusing on creating incentives for group members not to join, to lay their arms down, or to keep rates of violence low. He is a proponent of regulating marijuana production and consumption and opponent of aerial fumigation (see below under Hernández).

We expect Petro’s strategy regarding the FARC, ELN, and drug trafficking organizations in the country to emphasize negotiation and peace, largely ignoring the massive illicit economy running many parts of the country. This strategy wins support with its potential, and historically it has reduced overall rates of violence. However, given current criminal dynamics, it is almost certain to cause an increase in violence or a maintenance of the current status quo.

Rodolfo Hernández

Hernández is a wild card in every sense of the term, but he represents two trends that have taken hold across Latin America: anti-establishment and anti-corruption. A civil engineer by trade and a successful businessman, his political experience comes from his time as mayor of Bucaramanga (2016–2019) — a position he resigned from after his second suspension for breaking campaign advertising rules. He claims he will govern the country with his business acumen, but his policy platform is largely vague and aspirational, hence the “wild card” moniker.

  • On politics

Hernández believes graft is one of Colombia’s main problems. His anti-corruption message is extremely appealing. However, he has also been indicted on two separate accounts for corruption and union persecution. Legal experts are divided over whether these acts were inappropriate rather than illegal at the time they occurred. More serious allegations that he took kickbacks while serving as mayor persist and remain under investigation.

On welfare, he has proposed combining the 20 some-odd existing subsidies in Colombia into one universal basic income payment.

In late May, Hernández said he would like to fully implement the 2016 peace accords — which makes sense considering his daughter was reportedly abducted and disappeared by the ELN in 2005, but interesting considering he actually voted against these accords. Inconsistencies like this one in his campaigning may come from the fact that his campaign’s main advisor worked on Petro’s 2018 presidential campaign. However, he’s made little mention of the accords since the first round, likely because he is trying to absorb more voters from the political right, many of whom oppose the accords.

Similar to Petro, he’s likely to receive pushback in the legislature because of his lack of legislative experience and his criticism of the political elite. This will make it difficult for him to implement policy changes. Nevertheless, most of the aforementioned political elite have sided with him since the first round. His ability to push through legislation centers on two key areas. The first is whether he pushes for more centrist policies once in office, or whether he maintains his erratic policy announcements which come from across the political spectrum. The second is whether he declares a State of Commotion, a constitutional resource that grants the executive emergency powers for a 90-day period. This would allow him to force through his policies at the expense of democratic debate.

  • On business and the economy

Despite planning to lower taxes, Hernández’s economic reactivation policy does not stray far from his opponent’s. Hernández wants to revive the economy in rural Colombia; has recently come out as anti-fracking, despite his home state of Santander housing many fracking projects; and wants to move away from the neoliberal policies he blames for widespread insecurity. He notably wants to implement free public education, which has the potential to create a more educated workforce in the country. This policy alone could create significant opportunity for the nearly 2 million Venezuelans who now call Colombia their home. However, that would rely on Hernández, who has made xenophobic statements about Venezuelans in the past, keeping migration flows open (see below).

Hernández is also anti-bureaucracy and wants to get rid of the red-tape he feels inhibits business expansion in the country. As mentioned previously, the executive branch can pause and green light business permits, as well as remove regulatory barriers. The potential of these changes to the business community are something Hernández is acutely aware of, as a businessman himself.

Hernández has grown close to some of Colombia’s business elite during his campaign, including many union leaders. This is almost certainly intentional, given the large swathe of business-minded voters who are afraid of how Petro’s policies may impact the economy. His more business-friendly approach should therefore be met with cautious optimism. He’s known to ramble angrily; physically and verbally antagonize detractors; and propose policies from other presidential candidates’ published government plans, highlighting the lack of clarity as to what he will actually do once in office.

  • On human security

Hernández has made it clear that he wants to re-establish relations with Caracas, more explicitly with Maduro. This will have two clear outcomes — one, it may end many Venezuelan’s special status in Colombia which will encourage migration back into Venezuela; and two, it will help legitimize Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro as president internationally at the expense of opposition figurehead Juan Guaidó, who also claims the presidency.

On organized crime, Hernández is against aerial spraying and wants to regulate marijuana production and consumption. While this will certainly create tension with Washington, it has the potential to improve citizens’ health in rural Colombia, as well as improving security overall. Recall from above that Petro has proposed similar policies and that his party drafted a failed bill in Congress to legalize marijuana.

Regulating marijuana alone would not significantly impact the illicit economy in Colombia, but it would certainly make a dent overtime. Criminal groups are agile in diversifying their activities when a “practice” takes a hit. Over the past few years, these groups have largely focused on investing in and expanding their licit business activities. They may view the anti-corruption wave as a way to snatch up more licit business work if there was less bureaucracy and favoritism at the department and municipal level. Or, they may see Hernández begin an anti-corruption rampage that leads to the arrest of many former politicians, many of whom they may have worked with — something which may cause many in the organized criminal world to take stock of those relational risks and weigh their options.

How we can help

Whether in Colombia, or elsewhere in Latin America, Southern Pulse has over two decades of experience monitoring the political sphere in the region. We have seen historic shifts in power and track trends that contribute to the political movements taking shape today.

Southern Pulse is uniquely positioned to assist companies navigate the uncertain environment post-election as power balances often shift at all geographic levels. While we work with companies in election monitoring and scenario mapping pre-election, we also help clients respond to election outcomes and monitor associated local shifts in the political, union, community, and criminal arenas. Interested in learning more? Let’s chat.



Southern Pulse provides strategic advisory services to help businesses operate successfully in Latin America.

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Southern Pulse

Southern Pulse provides strategic advisory services to help businesses operate successfully in Latin America.