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The irresistible rise of Mockus

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In March this year the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled that President Alvaro Uribe could not stand for a third consecutive term. The hard-line president’s standing in opinion polls was so high it was assumed that his anointed choice as successor, former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos, would easily win the presidential contest, the first round of which is to be held on 30 May. But another candidate appears to be on the brink of upsetting all predictions. He is the former university professor and mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus. Nick Caistor, who has followed his career for almost 20 years, traces his seemingly irresistible rise. 

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When I first met Antanas Mockus he was already a legendary figure. He was rector at the publicly-funded National University in the Colombian capital, Bogotá. Those were unruly days at the university, with different student political groups fighting for control — and all of them hostile, if not contemptuous, towards their teachers. Mockus’ legendary status came from the fact that he had responded to the uproar in one lecture by turning his back on the student audience, and dropping his trousers to them before walking off stage. 

Later that year he ran for election as mayor of Bogotá — the city where he was born in 1952, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. He soon showed he had a serious side too (although he did get married in a circus around this time), and when he won he was quick to take on the overloaded and often corrupt city administration, which for years had been dominated by the two traditional Conservative and Liberal parties.

Mockus brought in his own team, many of them with university backgrounds like him. When I interviewed him early on his first term in office, he insisted that to change people’s attitudes and behaviour it was essential to first of all get them to think about what they way doing. In order to achieve this, he proposed many ways of engaging with the inhabitants of Bogotá on a symbolic as well as a practical level. So he handed out thousands of the yellow and red referee cards familiar to football-loving Colombians for pedestrians to wave at motorists they thought were committing ‘fouls’ with their driving. He employed mimes to stand at traffic lights to get drivers to respect the signals, and to prevent pedestrians jay-walking.

Another highly symbolic gesture was to institute ‘Women’s Fridays’, when the women of Bogotá  were encouraged to go out on their own and leave their menfolk at home. Mockus hoped in this way to counteract the culture of machismo, drinking and violence that is a problem on Bogotá as in many other Latin American cities. These and cleaning-up the police force led to a huge drop in violence and murder in the capital — some surveys put the figure at 70% less. His policies in the social area were complemented by new ideas regarding transport and the road system in Bogotá, energy and water supplies.

As well as his playful approach though, Antanas Mockus was also extremely-hard working and demanded the same of all his team. Many of them were bitterly disappointed as a result in 1997 when he stood down halfway through his second term as mayor to stand as a presidential candidate for the 1998 elections. Largely then an unknown figure outside the capital, Mockus made little impression on the countrywide electorate, and in 2001 stood once more for mayor in Bogotá. This time he lasted only two years, before resigning and returning to lecturing, often abroad, about his ideas on communities and the government of contemporary cities.

altHe stood again in the 2006 elections which saw a landslide for Alvaro Uribe and his ‘democracy with security’ campaign, winning less than two per cent of the votes. It seemed as though he might meet a similar fate this time around. Only a few weeks ago, his candidacy for the newly-formed Green Party of Colombia appeared to appeal to fewer than 10 per cent of voters. But since April, a sudden surge has put him ahead even of  Juan Manuel Santos, with real possibilities of winning in the first round.                     

Local observers put this down to many Colombians wanting to register their protest at Uribe’s way of governing, which they fear will continue under Santos. Others are attracted, as they were when he first stood for mayor, by Mockus’ different style and message compared to those of traditional politicians. According to one of his former colleagues, people intend to vote for him “because of his honesty and seriousness, and to show they reject the corruption and authoritarianism” of the Uribe regime.

As with Barak Obama’s campaign in the United States eighteen months ago, Mockus has also been able to rely on the support of thousands of young volunteers who have spread his message on social sites such as Facebook or through the Colombian Green Party at movilizacion@partidoverde.org.co.  

What is being called ‘la ola verde’ (Green Wave) needs though to continue growing if it is to carry Mockus not only through the first round, but to a successful runoff against Santos in June. Although the candidates from the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties have said they will swing their support behind him, old-fashioned politics in the form of deals, corruption and pressure, especially in the rural areas, could see the Antanas Mockus wave come crashing down.