When John Claro, an opposition councillor in the Colombian city of Bucaramanga, had a disagreement with the local mayor over a colleague’s misconduct, he was left with a red face and a ringing in his ear.
En a video of the incident, the mayor can be seen quickly losing his temper, rising to his feet and unleashing a stream of profanities. Entonces, 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 mentally well,” Claro told the Guardian. “I consider him to be a sociopath.”
Hernández, a 77-year-old businessman, likes to offend. He routinely releases foul-mouthed diatribes on social media, has admitted to not knowing much of Colombia, and once described Adolf Hitler as “a great German thinker”.
He has claimed that “the ideal would be for women to dedicate themselves to raising their children,” and called Venezuelan women “factories of poor children”.
He was initially written off as an oddball outsider, but last month shocked the country by making it through to Sunday’s run-off election, where he will face Gustavo Petro, a former urban guerrilla, and what has been portrayed as a battle of outsiders.
Hernández shares traits with the region’s growing gallery of personalist populists: like El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, he has used social media (en su caso, Tik Tok) to reach undecided voters; like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro he revels in crass political incorrectness; like Donald Trump, he has a history in business, a dubious comb-over and a platform that is strong on emotion but lacking in detail.
“You can compare Hernández to Louis XIV, the French king who said ‘the state is me’,” said Claro, who is supporting Petro’s campaign. “He says what people want to hear, he is erratic, he is a demagogue, he is tongue-in-cheek, he is rude, he is a mythomaniac.”
Should Petro win, he would become the first leftist president in a country where for most of the last century, political power has involved power-sharing pacts between the right and the centre-right.
But Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá, has also been accused of highhandedness, and his personal history alienates many in a conservative country where the left has long been tarred by association with the many guerrilla groups that have battled state forces and their paramilitary allies for decades.
While Petro was the frontrunner for most the campaign – and took 40% in the first round – many of his opponents are now expected to line up behind Hernández, giving the septuagenarian self-declared “king of TikTok” a strong chance of winning. Recent polling has found the two virtually tied.
Hernández was practically unknown when he won 28% de la votación, after a campaign on social media that was heavy on bashing “elites” but light on policies.
One of Hernández’s proposals on the campaign trail was to take any Colombian that had not been to either of its two coastlines to see the sea. He posted videos in which he posed shirtless with models brandishing a Catholic cross, or sprinkled salt over steak in the style of the internet sensation Salt Bae.
He has flip-flopped on a host of issues, walked out of interviews when they go where he doesn’t like, and promised an austere and protectionist state. He decamped to Miami at the height of the campaign, claiming he could be killed if he stayed in Colombia. And he is under investigation for corruption while campaigning on an anti-corruption platform.
But more than any particular policy, what may win the support of the Colombian establishment is the fact that he is not Petro.
“Anti-Petro voters explain Rodolfo Hernández, because in Colombia to have been a guerrilla weighs a lot – especially in conservative and rightwing circles,” said Pedro Piedrahita Bustamente, a professor of political science at the University of Medellín.
“We must remember that political culture, especially in Colombia, is marked by apathy; it is marked by dissatisfaction with politics and traditional politicians," él dijo. “Rodolfo Hernández embodies the non-traditional politician, despite being now backed by traditional political clans. And his style is characteristic of this country’s culture of violence.”
But those who plan to vote for Hernández see him as a refreshing break from the status quo – without a lurch to the left.
“He’s a human being with errors but he’s capable of recognizing them,” said Hector Guillermo Parra, an electronic engineer. “He looks for quick solutions to problems without splurging resources and is trying to reduce the debt with interesting proposals.”
In Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in the world – where “engineer” is an honorific when applied to a wealthy man like Hernández – the politics of brute force have never seemed far away, especially when the poor cry for change.
During mass protests last year, dozens died and hundreds were injured by a police force let loose by the current president, Iván Duque, who is constitutionally prohibited from re-election. Colombia’s military and intelligence agencies have a long history of spying on enemies perceived and real.
A 2016 peace deal signed with the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) – which formally ended a war that killed more than 260,000 people and forced millions from their homes – has been haltingly implemented, for which the incumbent government has been blamed.
Violence continues to plague the countryside, where environmental activists and human rights defenders – collectively known as social leaders – are killed at rates higher than anywhere else in the world.
“We have experienced authoritarianism over the last 20 años, and strong, coarse personalities connect with the electorate,” said María Emma Wills, a prominent political scientist. “That shows you in part the values of Colombian society, Derecha?"
He has attempted to walk back some of his most incendiary comments since making it through to the second round of elections. He said of his Hitler remark that he actually meant Albert Einstein, and has promised to promote equal pay for women and no discrimination clauses in contracts, but few of his detractors are convinced.
“Those kinds of comments he makes aren’t only awful and repulsive, but a reflection of a part of Colombian society that still thinks that women should stay in the kitchen,” said Ana Maria Villas, a street artist from Bogotá. “But I’m hopeful that the young population of Colombia will stop letting these sorts of people get close to power.”
For Claro, the counselor who has literally felt the impact of Hernández, the alarm bells have been ringing for a while. “He would take us centuries backwards," él dijo. “All the way back to the Middle Ages.”