On May 29, businessman Rodolfo Hernandez of the League of Anti-corrupt Governors (LIGA) Party came out of nowhere to poll second in Colombia’s presidential elections. Hernandez is a brash construction mogul of mediocre political trajectory (sound familiar?), who once bizarrely confused admiration for Adolf Hitler and Albert Einstein and promises bounties for citizens who turn in corrupt officials.
Left-wing frontrunner, Gustavo Petro, could not muster the needed 50 percent +1, so he will face Hernandez in a June 19 runoff – a runoff Hernandez appears set to win, having already secured the support of the traditional right he leapfrogged into second place.
Hernandez is about to join a long list of right-wing populists who rose to power using polarising politics around an “us vs them” binary, usually blaming racial, ethnic, and religious minorities for political and economic stagnation. This list includes Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Duterte (and now Marcos) in the Philippines, Berlusconi in Italy, Orban in Hungary, Morales in Guatemala, Bukele in El Salvador, and others. Despite their many differences, one paradoxical aspect unites these disparate right-wing populists: an anti-corruption mantra that is not what it seems.
Before continuing, it is worth mentioning that corruption is a bad thing; not all fights against corruption are the tools of right-wing populists, and right-wing populists focusing on anti-corruption are responding to real social and political crises.
Indeed, corruption saps resources from already debilitated states, weakens democracy, favours elites, and wastes money that could be spent on needed programmes.
Leftists, including Colombia’s Petro, wage their own anti-corruption campaigns focused on the inherent biases of late capitalism, and centrist anti-corruption advocates draw from rational-legal norms and good government traditions like those of 20th century US reformers. Left, centre, and right-wing anti-corruption movements often arise simultaneously as rival responses to very real social and political crises.
In the past few years, such crises have included the pandemic, recession, inequality, inflation, climate change and infighting among political elites together, creating a perfect storm and triggering protests – and various anti-corruption battles – across the world.
In Colombia too, these crises provoked widespread and harshly repressed protests between 2019 and 2021. Hernandez responded to the situation by assuming a uniquely right-wing, populist anti-corruption stance, positioning himself as an outsider despite his term as mayor of Bucaramanga and real estate millions.
For right-wing populists like Hernandez, anti-corruption means a revolution from above, responding to any social and political crisis at hand without fundamentally changing social relations. This tacit support for the status quo often allows right-wing populists running on anti-corruption promises to garner support from the traditional centre and right, as has already happened in the US Republican Party and is currently happening in Colombia.
To resolve political crises characterised by stasis, inaction, and infighting, right-wing anti-corruption populists elevate unelected actors to positions of power within the state, including elements of the security apparatus, judicial officials, and the bureaucracy.
These actors often appear tough on corruption – arresting, incarcerating, and regulating – and their unelected status means they are accountable only to the right-wing populist who appoints them or retains them in their position. Right-wing populists also elevate extreme right partisan elites, forcing centrists and centre-right actors to accept extremist leadership. In such scenarios, left-wing politicians always end up being the most disadvantaged, as they face constant attacks from unelected authorities.
To respond to economic crises, right-wing populists elected on anti-corruption promises move to reorganise economic elites. International capital, and its local allies, especially interrelated national and international financial interests, dictate their strategies for recovery – usually extreme versions of neoliberalism, replete with privatisation and loosening environment and labour laws. Elites supporting national productive capacities are usually construed as corrupt, especially in developing countries.
The utmost target of such “anti-corruption” right-wing populists always end up being unions, environmental movements, and other advocacy groups for basic rights.
Instead, right wing populists mobilise working-class voters around dominant group identities, blaming all their problems on corrupt (leftist) politicians and marginalised racial, ethnic, religious, and gender groups. The middle class, mostly drawn from dominant groups, also goes along with the farce because they fear leftist redistribution may erode their status.
There is much reason to believe a Hernandez presidency will see a repeat of all these tried and tested right-wing populist tactics in the Colombian context – a scenario that will harm the most marginalised and vulnerable segments of society the most.
And in Colombia, a right-wing populist like Hernandez will also have the acquiescence of the US. The US, after all, bemoans attacks on democracy and minorities abroad, but allies itself with populist right-wing regimes openly attacking democracy when useful as a bulwark against the left.
Just weeks before the first round of Colombia’s presidential election, US diplomatic envoy Victoria Nuland met all the centre and right-wing presidential candidates, including Hernandez, snubbed frontrunner Petro, and handed $8m to the Colombian security forces so that they can address their own human rights violations. It is clear that if Hernandez wins on June 19 and becomes Colombia’s next president, the US will support his so called “anti-corruption” agenda fully, and in turn welcome privatisations, deregulations, and other economic steps favouring US firms and their local allies at the expense of the Colombian people.
Only the people of Colombia can prevent this grim scenario from becoming reality.
The the track records of right-wing anti-corruption populists around the world foreshadow what Hernandez is really promising: a revolution from above that would not change social relations for the better while empowering unelected state bodies, weaken organisations and movements working to better the lives of working classes and further the interests of Washington.
Hernandez offers no real remedy to the crisis experienced by middle and working classes. Only the left can truly end Colombia’s crisis by advancing national sovereignty, increasing working class incomes, defending minority rights and above all preserving democracy. What the populist right, including Hernandez, is offering is nothing but a passive revolution from above.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.