The avalanche of the ‘old man from TikTok’ turns the elections in Colombia upside down

Everything seemed calm and predictable in the Colombian electoral dynamics three weeks ago. Gustavo Petro had been the favorite of the race for more than a year and Fico Gutiérrez would be his contender for a second round.

Fico played with a disadvantage, since it seemed to be the time for the persistent Petro, with a claiming message that fit well with the change that Colombia demanded. Change or continuity is the most frequent electoral dilemma present in any contest and Fico clearly represented continuity. Some poor opponents and a good running mate did the rest so that the predictions were linear.

But politics is not usually linear, and barely ten days before the first electoral round, two renowned pollsters spotted the possibility that Rodolfo Hernández would slip into that first election, instead of Fico. The “engineer Rodolfo”, as he likes to be called, a controversial, talkative and somewhat populist former mayor, grew in the last two weeks at an avalanche rate to conquer 28% of the electorate, 12 points behind Petro, and leaving behind Fico, with 24% clearly representing the vote for establishment.

As soon as Engineer Hernández’s pass to the second round was announced, Fico declared his support for his cause. Today anyone could add Fico’s 24 points to Rodolfo’s 28 and deduce that Petro will lose the final round. Not necessarily.

Gustavo Petro, senator and candidate for the presidency of Colombia.
Shutterstock / Arturo Larrahondo

The popularity of the engineer against the constancy of Petro

An important virtue of Petro is that of perseverance. The day after losing the presidential election in 2018, he was already a candidate. Just as he had also done four years ago. He achieved eight million votes in the second round of 2018 against Duque, a figure very similar to the one he obtained this past electoral Sunday. His message throughout this time has been consistent: from a leftist perspective, he offers an anti-system change, with a fairer Colombia as the objective image.

In 2014 and 2018, Petro’s association with Chavismo took its toll on him, being perceived as a danger to Colombia; But in 2022, and after a couple of opportune public scuffles with Maduro, the situation changed and the fear of Petro seems to have vanished from Colombian society.

an unequal country

Colombia is one of the societies with the greatest inequality, in a continent that is distinguished precisely by great social inequalities. A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimated that a poor Colombian child would need 11 generations to get out of poverty.

Social mobility is scarce in Colombian society. Colombia has a social stratification system that divides the layers of society, according to their area of ​​residence, into five groups of difficult porosity. Initially conceived as a rationalization system for urban subsidies, the strata today represent the rigidity of the social system.

Just before the pandemic began, at the end of 2019, vigorous protests filled the streets of Colombia demanding a more just society. And the pandemic only made everything worse. At the subregional level, it is estimated that Covid-19 claimed 25 million formal employment positions, a higher percentage than that of other regions of the globe.

The crisis caused by the pandemic would be dragging more than 28 million people into poverty, new poor in Latin America, for a total of 35% of the population, according to ECLAC data. All of this makes Gustavo Petro’s vindictive message more timely, although his irreverent new adversary makes it difficult for him to differentiate himself in terms of change/continuity. Nor will it be easy for him to polarize in terms of left/right.

Few arts are as multidisciplinary as politics, perhaps for this reason we often borrow from other sciences to explain political-electoral phenomena. One that is frequently used is that of the electoral avalanche. The term is borrowed from geology and occurs when a landslide or snow slide sweeps away almost everything in its path. An electoral avalanche is the great dream of every candidate and consultant. It happens when a candidate or party receives an overwhelming majority of votes in the final phase of a campaign, diminishing the visibility and vote of the opponents.

file 20220530 26 kqpfoh.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Candidate Rodolfo Hernández in a TikTok video.

In contemporary contests it is impossible to understand the electoral avalanches isolated from the phenomenon of cyber politics. Electoral avalanches today depend as much on virality, mobilization and social networks, as geological avalanches depend on climatic changes, temperature, slope and edaphological weight.

The Engineer Avalanche is no exception. Self-qualified as “the old man of TikTok” he made very good use of his social networks from where he distributed an anti-system message, in a very popular tone. “Against the robbery” was the fundamental message. Likewise, he invited to make possible his first victoryexplaining electoral mathematics in a simple way.

Social networks, better predictors than surveys

Searches on Google and interactions on Facebook generated by the candidates became better predictors of this race than surveys, whose regular fieldwork times become very slow due to the dynamism of avalanches. An avalanche that produces a landslide victory is often seen in retrospect as a turning point in societies’ views on the political issues that drive them.

Today Rodolfo is the favourite, and this is indicated by the electoral betting markets (another of the predictors of the new era). However, although luck, good or bad, accompanies avalanches, they are not merely a product of chance, but episodes that occur from favorable conditions.

In three weeks, on June 19, the second round will be held. Whatever the outcome, the new president will find himself in the minority in a newly elected parliament. The winner will be the one with the best prior preparation, the greatest ability to influence the agenda, and the best orchestration of the message. And the strategy, of course. Because as the Roman philosopher Seneca suggested more than 2,000 years ago when he reflected on the importance of direction in our actions, “No wind is favorable for those who do not know where they are going.”

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