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Mockus: not quite man of the hour

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Mockus: not quite man of the hour

The results of the first round of Colombia’s presidential elections were a bit of a surprise.  Polls had placed Antanas Mockus, the Green altpresidential candidate, neck and neck with Uribe’s heir apparent, Juan Manuel Santos (pictured). In the end Santos got just over 46% of the vote, more than double the 21% obtained by Mockus, making it highly likely that the latter will become the next president of Colombia.

Mockus has an uphill, though not impossible, battle on his hands. The Colombian electorate is fickle and not very ideological. In the congressional elections last March the Greens obtained just over 530,000 votes, but 1.8 million voted in the ‘internal’ consultation to choose Mockus as the Green’s candidate and now more than three million voted for him in the presidential elections. The poor congressional election results can be explained partly by corruption and the buying of votes with cash payments or promises for schools, roads etc by other parties.  

The presidential elections, too, are not immune to a little bit of vote rigging.  According to Gustavo Petro, the candidate for the Polo Democrático, approximately one million dollars was spent on bribing voters in the first round, particularly on the Caribbean coast.  It is a common practice, even in Bogotá where a vote goes for 10 to 15 dollars with lunch thrown in for good measure.  However, Colombians tend to ignore local concerns and promises made when it comes to the presidential elections.

The crowds that gathered at Mockus’ post-electoral rally chanted “It can be done” and they are probably right – it is possible though not probable. The Conservatives have all but pledged their 4% to Santos, the Liberals are divided but the regional sections in Santander and Valle de Cauca have publicly stated they will support Santos, making it all but academic what Cambio Radical and the Polo decide.  Mockus needs to convince a section of the more than 50% of the electorate that did not vote to turn out for him on June 20th.

The real Mockus

But what of Mockus (pictured)?  Is he really the opposition to Uribe?  When the polls placed him on a par with Santos there was a tizzy of activity on the internet, particularly from the left pointing to his record as Chancellor of the National University and his role as Mayor of Bogotá. The record of Mockus, Peñalosa and Garzón, the three ex-mayors of Bogotá that are the driving force behind the Green’s electoral success, has passed into the realm of legend rather than having been subjected to any serious analysis.  Services were privatised or outsourced and every year 250,000 had their water supply cut off due to non-payment of bills, whilst at the same time the price of water went through the roof.  The Mayor’s office put up 93% of the cost of building the Transmilenio rapid transport system and now covers the maintenancealt costs, but only receives 5% of the profits.  All of this is true but was of little consequence in the debate.

The debate, such that it was, amounted to no more than an organised exchange of soundbites. Candidates were lined up on televised panels and asked a series of questions to which they responded in under a minute with very little cross-examination if any.  In many cases each candidate was asked a different question. The format left no room for real debate.  Gustavo Petro declared that he wanted a government with no more extrajudicial executions. Santos, who as Minister for Defence bore responsibility for the so called “False Positives” (this was the euphemism given to judicial executions carried out by the army of young people dressed up in uniform and then presented as guerrillas killed in combat), was able to just simply reply “So do I” and there it stood. Mockus when was able to get away with declaring that he couldn’t recall what position he took on Colombia’s aerial bombardment and invasion of a FARC camp in Ecuador. The debates were not debates.

For the purposes of this article I forced myself to watch the penultimate and final debates in their entirety and at the end I was left with the feeling that I should have indulged in the joys of cable and switched over to Dr House halfway through, as I had done on previous occasions. I did read the newspaper reports but they were only slightly better than the debates.

Mockus’ popularity is not the product of a profound challenge to the politics of the last eight years. Just before the elections he declared to the press how much he admired the good work of Uribe and he like all of the other candidates, including Petro, declared that he would continue with Uribe’s policy of Democratic Security. The contradiction between this and his promise for ethical government or his slogan that life is sacred was never explored. He is very much a creation of the media.

Parallels with Uribe

In many ways his rapid rise parallels that of Uribe, a candidate who came out of nowhere to take the presidency in the midst of a concerted media campaign. Uribe won the 2002 elections promising zero corruption and the military defeat of the FARC and the ELN. The fact that guerrillas, though cornered, remain strong or that his government turned out to be the most corrupt in Colombian history has not dented that image. The scandals that have dogged his eight years are put down to the failings of individuals. For a time it seemed that he would emulate Uribe’s victory with a promise to introduce, perhaps for the first time ever, a dose of ethics to Colombian politics. The scandals, it seemed, would do for him what the failure of Pastrana’s negotiations with the FARC did for Uribe. The difference is, of course, that Uribe challenged the Pastrana government as such and not just the failings of individuals.

Mockus’ campaign is, like the debates, replete with banalities: life is sacred; public funds are sacred; and so on.  He is a Green candidate that has little or nothing to say on the environment. His 14 point document on environmental priorities steers clear of the environmental elephant in the room. Under Uribe, mining companies have been given access to environmentally sensitive areas, including the areas that generate 90% of the  public water supply. Were he to mention it, he would have to challenge Uribe’s economic policies and he, like most of the candidates, has been running scared of the shadow of Uribe’s eight years in government.  With the exception of Petro, no candidate made any effort to challenge the fundamentals of his economic legacy.  

Should Mockus pull off a remarkable feat and trounce Santos in the second round, it is unlikely that his government will be radically different. He might just be more ethical, but then Uribe told us there would be no tolerance of corruption in his government and look what happened. Hopefully, the debates will be more interesting in the second round and I can opt for watching the reruns of Dr. House once the elections are over. Though, I suspect I may end up watching them first time round.

Any opinions or viewpoints that are published herein are directly from the contributing author and does  not necessarily represent the philosophy or viewpoints of Latin America Bureau