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The 'TikTok old man' avalanche turns Colombia's elections upside down


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The Conversation

Carmen Beatriz Fernández

Professor of Political Communication

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

Fico was at a disadvantage, as it seemed to be the time of the persistent Petro, with a vindictive message that fit well with the change that Colombia demanded. Change or continuity is the most frequent electoral dilemma present in any race and Fico clearly represented continuity. Poor opponents and a good running mate did the rest to make the forecasts linear.

But politics is not usually linear, and just ten days before the first round of elections, two reputable pollsters spotted the possibility of Rodolfo Hernández slipping 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 pace to conquer 28% of the electorate, 12 points behind Petro, and leaving behind Fico, with 24% who clearly represented the pro-establishment vote.

As soon as Hernandez's second round was announced, Fico declared his support to his cause. Anyone could today add Fico's 24 points to Rodolfo's 28 and deduce that Petro will lose the final round. Not necessarily.

Engineer's popularity vs. Petro's constancy

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

In 2014 and 2018 Petro's association with Chavismo happened to him invoice, being perceived as a danger for Colombia; but in 2022, and after a couple of timely public rifirrafes with Maduro, the status changed and the fear of Petro seems to have vanished from Colombian society.

An unequal country

Colombia is one of the most unequal societies in a continent distinguished precisely by great social inequalities. development A report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimated that a poor Colombian child would need 11 generations to escape 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 residency program, into five groups of difficult porosity. Initially conceived as a system for rationalizing urban subsidies, the strata today represent the rigidity of the social system.

Just before the pandemic began in late 2019, vigorous protests filled the streets of Colombia demanding a more just society. And the pandemic only made it worse. At the subregional level, it is estimated that covid-19 claimed 25 million formal employment jobs, a higher percentage than in 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, totaling 35% of the population, according to data of ECLAC. All 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 right/left.

Few arts are as multidisciplinary as politics, perhaps that is why 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 in the final phase of a campaign an overwhelming majority of the votes, diminishing the visibility and voting of the opponents.

In contemporary contests it is impossible to understand electoral avalanches in isolation from the phenomenon of cyberpolitics. 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's avalanche is no exception. Self-described as "the old man of TikTok" he made a 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 main message. Likewise, he invited to make his victory possible in the first round, explaining the electoral mathematics in a simple way.

Social networks, better predictors than surveys

Google searches and Facebook interactions generated by the candidates became better predictors in this race than polls, whose regular work field times become very slow in the face of the dynamism of landslides. A landslide that produces a landslide victory is often seen in retrospect as a turning point in societies' views on the political issues that move them.

Today Rodolfo is the favorite, and this is what the electoral betting markets indicate (another of the predictors of the new era). However, although luck, good or bad, accompanies the avalanches, they are not merely the product of chance, but episodes that occur due to favorable conditions.

In three weeks, on June 19, the second round will be held. Whatever the outcome result, the new president will find himself in a minority before a newly elected parliament. The winner will be the one with the best previous preparation, the best capacity to influence diary 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".