Meet the 77-year-old TikTok star running for president of Colombia A 77-year-old populist who campaigns over TikTok and promises budget cuts and jail for corrupt officials is now neck and neck with his leftist opponent ahead of Sunday's runoff election.

After Colombia's election surprise, a populist TikTok star poses stiff competition

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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

An eccentric 77-year-old millionaire who's conducted most of his campaign on TikTok has shaken up the presidential race in Colombia. Populist Rodolfo Hernandez emerged from near obscurity and is now running neck and neck with his rival candidate in polls. NPR's John Otis reports from Bogota.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Rodolfo Hernandez shocked Colombia's political establishment last month by getting enough votes in the first-round presidential election to earn a spot in Sunday's runoff. But instead of celebrating with throngs of supporters, Hernandez sat all by himself at his kitchen table, staring into a camera.

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RODOLFO HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In the resulting video, you can see kitchen appliances and a pot-filled stove in the background as Hernandez thanks voters. It was in keeping with his austere, straight-talking image. Though he made millions in real estate, Hernandez isn't spending much on his campaign. Rather than barnstorming the country, Hernandez spreads his message through videos on social media. If he wins, he plans to hold a simple inaugural in the poorest town in Colombia.

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HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: And once in office, he's vowed to cut spending and root out corruption.

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HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a TV interview, Hernandez said nearly all Colombian politicians were traitors, liars, clowns and hypocrites, and we are going to kick them out. At first, Colombians paid little attention to Hernandez, whose only important political experience was serving as mayor of the northern city of Bucaramanga, but he started gaining traction. And in the first round of presidential voting, Hernandez finished second among six candidates.

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GUSTAVO PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This man, Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla, received the most votes for president and, until recently, was the clear front-runner. But as the runoff approaches, some polls show that Hernandez is now ahead of Petro.

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HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In his kitchen table message, Hernandez told supporters, I'm counting on you to win the runoff so we can turn our big plans into action. That would be a shock to Colombia's political system, which has always been dominated by traditional parties and machine politics. However, nonstop corruption scandals, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic that threw millions into poverty, have many Colombians clamoring for someone completely different. Hernandez's rival, Gustavo Petro, is trying to become Colombia's first-ever left-wing president, but he's a former Bogota mayor and longtime senator and is old news compared to Hernandez.

LAWRENCE GUMBINER: The wave right now is - all these guys who have been around all these years, we don't like any of them. And we don't really know who this guy is, but we're so sick of everybody who's been around all these years that, you know, we're willing to roll the dice on them.

OTIS: That's Lawrence J. Gumbiner, a former U.S. diplomat who has advised Hernandez on world affairs.

GUMBINER: His Achilles heel is his populist tendencies, his appreciation for the strongman style of governance.

OTIS: Hernandez's headstrong approach was on full display in 2018, when he was mayor of Bucaramanga.

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OTIS: He was caught on this video screaming at a city councilman and then slapping him in an argument over corruption. Indeed, for all his talk of clean government, Hernandez himself is facing corruption charges from his time as mayor, in a case set to go to trial in July.

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HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He's also made some stunning gaffes.

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HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In this radio interview last year, for example, he praised Adolf Hitler when he meant to say Albert Einstein. Hernandez is an economic conservative and a social liberal, but he's failed to flesh out his proposals and has avoided the scrutiny of televised debates.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: However, many Colombians are drawn more to Hernandez's style than his substance.

MARCO MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "He's very firm in his decisions," says Marco Moreno, who runs a bike shop and plans to vote for Hernandez. "He's radical, and that's what's good about him."

John Otis, NPR News, Bogota.

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