Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Mockus Races Ahead in Colombian Presidential Campaign

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What once looked like a predictable outcome in Colombia’s forthcoming presidential elections has recently turned into a tight race that pundits say is too close to call.

The comfortable lead that presidential frontrunner and former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, once enjoyed in the polls is fading fast.

That’s largely due to the surge of Antanas Mockus, a former university rector, philosopher and two-time mayor of Bogotá, who just a few weeks ago was trailing in the polls with little more than 9 percent of the intended vote.

Now Mockus garners around 38 percent of the vote, according to a poll published yesterday. This is a clear advantage over his main rival, Santos, who has about 29 percent of the intended vote. And many believe his meteoric rise will last until polling day on May 30.

The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mockus is the presidential candidate for the new Green Party. But apart from the green tee-shirts he wears and the lime green ties he dons at televised presidential debates, there is nothing particularly green about Mockus. Green issues do not appear to be his passion and he barely mentioned climate change during the two televised presidential debates.

Earlier this month, Mockus chose the photogenic former mayor, Sergio Fajardo, as his running mate, an astute choice that helped change his fortunes and marked the beginning of his rise in the polls.

Fajardo and Mockus, both mathematicians, present an intriguing presidential formula that has particularly appealed to young voters who are using Facebook to muster support.

Both Fajardo and Mockus are seen as independent from the established elite, something that Santos who belongs to a powerful Colombian political dynasty can’t pretend to be.

But most significantly, the bearded and spectacled Mockus has a squeaky clean image and is seen as uncorruptable. This attribute stands for a lot these days in Colombia, where few trust their elected politicians and where people are fed up with nepotism, election fraud and the seemingly never-ending corruption scandals.

There is a growing sense here, particularly among first time and young disillusioned voters living in the cities, that it is time to elect a leader who they believe is honest and will play it clean.

In the same way that President Álvaro Uribe made Colombians feel safer, Mockus makes his supporters feel safer because he won’t steal from them or the state. His recent public declaration that he has Parkinson’s disease was seen by many Colombians as a sign of strength, and more importantly, honesty.

Mockus is known for his unique brand of political discourse, which his critics argue is often incoherent and too lofty and unintelligible for the man in the street. His ideologies can be hard to pigeon hole as either right and or left-leaning policies.

But it is clear that education is at the heart of Mockus’ policies. His key election mantra—“with education everything is possible”—is based on his belief that education is the fundamental basis of Colombia’s social and economic progress.

In his speeches, Mockus combines ethics and philosophy mixed in with everyday analogies, while promoting his firm belief that change can come about by re-educating and redefining cultural attitudes and perceptions.

For Mockus, lowering crime rates, increasing tax collection and combating Colombia’s drug trade involves persuading people through public awareness-raising campaigns that committing a crime is morally wrong and is detrimental to society at large.

He has promised a crackdown on tax evaders, and says Colombians need to understand that it is morally wrong to steal from the state as it is from a neighbor.

Mockus also believes in generating consensus and that policy initiatives and changes need to be the result of a more inclusive debate from all sectors of society and different stakeholders.

Now seen as a real threat in the polls, Mockus’ opponents, and outgoing president Uribe have gone on the attack, accusing him of taking an indecisive and soft stance against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebels.

Mockus, though, is aware that to guarantee victory at the polls he must reassure voters that he would stand firm against the rebels.

“I’m very tough with the FARC,” he said during a recent local radio interview.

His opponents, though, would prefer to cultivate the image of someone who is too eccentric to govern, and even bordering on the insane.

Mockus is famous for once pulling down his pants down and mooning a rowdy audience of university students. He is also remembered for running around Bogotá in a red and yellow Superman-type suit to pose as “Super Citizen” when he was mayor of the city. These are the images his opponents would prefer voters keep in mind when they go the polls.

But as the so-called “green wave” of support continues for the Mockus camp. His rivals have their work cut out.

*Anastasia Moloney is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. She is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia.


Anastasia Moloney is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, a contributor to Financial Times and a contributing editor at the Washington, DC-based website World Politics Review.

Tags: Álvaro, Antanas Mockus, Colombia election 2010, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Green Party, Juan Manuel Santos, Sergio Fajardo
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