By Laia Mataix Gomez
Bogota, Jun 9 (EFE).- The mission has been clear from the start: to “Rodolfize” Colombia to carry businessman Rodolfo Hernandez to the Casa de Nariño, the country’s presidential residence. And, although he was a little-known candidate, his support network managed to do the unthinkable and take him into the presidential runoff, where he may well win it all.
The caravans of “Rodolfistas” in automobiles and on motorcycles have traveled all over the South American country, becoming the most idiosyncratic members of this network of volunteers organized into different levels and coordinated via the social networks, to create a rising tide of voices that “is growing like the sea foam.”
“The caravans are something very nice, and the people are joining because they’re tired” of the traditional way of doing politics, Nestor Estupiñan, who heads the “Rodolfista” headquarters in Bogota and is the administrator and policy strategist for the network in the capital, told EFE in an interview.
The narrative of Hernandez, an engineer by training, and which the “Rodolfonet” of his followers have propagated all over the country, has been as follows: talking about corruption, politicking, corruption and – once again – corruption.
The strategy, beyond the campaign on the social networks headed by Hernandez himself, has been clear: Having local spokespeople talk with people one on one to convince them to support him at the polls.
Another pillar of the effort is volunteerism, especially the “Rodolfista wave” members who hand out pamphlets talking about “an atypical way of doing politics … with strong discourse against politicking,” said Estupiñan.
“All the Rodolfistas who are working at the headquarters and on the campaigns are doing natural proselytizing,” he said, explaining Hernandez’s success so far, having exceeded all predictions and voter surveys to emerge ahead of rightist Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, whom all the voter surveys had predicted would come in second in the first round of balloting, and thus to make it to the runoff with leftist Gustavo Petro.
If the first round strategy was to convince Colombians that Hernandez will end corruption – a goal for which he still has not articulated a concrete plan – the runoff strategy has been to tell undecided voters, the big cohort of electors he is seeking to convince, about his platform.
The aim is to “capture the anti-Petro votes,” to show them that there’s a path to victory with the engineer: “To choose between the same-old-same-old or a better deal.”
For the Rodolfistas, Hernandez came to the political fray at a moment when there was “no unity,” and so they blindly believe in his ability to make Colombia a less corrupt country if he manages to win the presidency.
The process for broadening the network of Rodolfistas is relatively simple: Via his Web page, interested voters can sign up as a volunteer and choose groups on WhatApp which they can join depending on where in the country they live.
Besides being divided into geographical categories, there are also campaign groups headed by young people or women that people can join. Campaign material is passed out among the groups and meetings are held to continue with the process of Rodolfization, while members are encouraged to talk with anyone and everyone about the candidate and his platform.
The groups, however, are breeding grounds for disinformation and fake news, with messages sent and resent among members many times without checking their veracity. And, in addition, there is a strict policy that does not allow “intruders” into the groups, that is anyone who even slightly questions the engineer or expresses any kind of disagreement with him or what he says he stands for. At the first sign of such behavior, those people are expelled.
One of the Hernandez campaign’s most controversial issues has been the purchase of advertising by his followers, who pay out of their own pockets for campaign materials like t-shirts or flyers and stickers that they place on cars.
The result is that “the engineer has spent very little money” on his campaign so far, having invested far less than Petro, because it’s his volunteers who are paying for the advertising materials and making donations to get the word out in various ways.
This fanaticism is an underlying feature of these groups, where expressing any doubt about Hernandez’s decision not to participate in any political debates with his opponent is seen as an attack on him and constitutes grounds for exclusion.
Regarding the atypical campaign Hernandez has been running, with few public appearances and without even responding to questions from reporters – with whom he has had a strained relationship – Estupiñan defends it by saying that “he would have been attacked a lot” if he had taken part in debates. “They want to make fun of him,” and there is also the question of candidate safety, he said.
“The attacks and the aggressiveness began when the engineer won” entry into the runoff at the polls last month, Estupiñan said, adding that Petro’s campaign has been behind acts of vandalism against the “Rodolfista home” in Bogota and has been trying to “sow doubts and fear.”
Beyond sharing information about campaign events, the WhatsApp groups backing Hernandez constitute a space where people can freely criticize Petro for the “communism and socialism” they claim he represents.