President Spandex?

The man who once mooned an auditorium of students, dressed up as a superhero to teach civics lessons, and cleaned up Bogotá while he was at it just might become Colombia's next president. 

Flikr, Creative Commons
Flikr, Creative Commons

Colombian politician Antanas Mockus has, as Oxford historian Malcolm Deas put it, "a gift for cheering people up." And apparently Colombia is looking for exactly that. Just a few months ago, the odds were slim at best that Mockus, a tough-minded and disciplined former math professor with an unconventional approach to politics, would be elected president of Latin America’s third-most populous country. Juan Manuel Santos, the former defense minister and a close associate of highly popular President Álvaro Uribe, seemed the obvious front-runner.

But then Mockus’s campaign exploded, using mostly social media such as Facebook and word of mouth. He has run a fiscally austere campaign, turning down half the state money he was entitled to because he thinks public funds are "sacred" and should be reserved for more worthy projects. All this has generated enormous excitement in a campaign that most expected to be a nonevent. Today, just weeks before the May 30 election, it’s hard to find a smart political analyst who would bet against him. Polls point to a tight two-way race between Mockus and Santos, with a high possibility of a second-round face off on June 20 (though given his dazzling surge in support, Mockus might just score an upset in the first round).

Why the dramatic shift? Many Colombians, it appears, are simply tired of the high tensions and sporadic confrontations that have accompanied the Uribe government in recent years. And Mockus represents a change — without stepping too far from the Uribe administration’s "democratic security" policies that many Colombians credit with quieting the country’s violence.

A Green Party candidate and the son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mockus is best known for his eccentricities and a penchant for symbolic gestures — many of which have garnered him much free publicity over the years. Around the time that I met him in 1991, he was rector of the National University in Bogotá, a role in which he gained notoriety for dropping his pants to silence an auditorium of rowdy students. (It worked.)

Later, during his two three-year terms as Bogotá’s mayor, Mockus taught civic values by getting mimes to mock motorists who broke driving laws. He dressed up as the "Super Citizen" — a character that required a spandex suit — and took a televised shower with his wife to promote water conservation. He thrived on such "teachable moments" that made the city better without new regulations. And he became what he is today: a national phenomenon.

Despite these unconventional tactics, however, Mockus is far from a novice politician. The "outsider" label should be applied with care. True, he is fiercely independent and promises a real break with "politics as usual" in Colombia. His reputation for probity, for example, is deserved: He is truly allergic to the wheeling and dealing that has dominated the country’s politics for many years. Unlike with the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties, as well as Santos’s "U" party, no one in a hypothetical Mockus government would be waiting in the wings for key posts. But Mockus is politically savvy and intensely ambitious. This is his third run for the presidency, and being mayor of Bogotá is no small feat. The office is the second-most important and demanding elected seat in the country.

Mockus can rightly boast of his achievements as mayor. His imaginative pedagogy to foster civic responsibility and encourage "convivencia" (fellowship) yielded tangible results, including a marked drop in crime and improvements in infrastructure and public order. He did this even while remaining notably austere; no one could justly accuse him of fiscal irresponsibility. (In fact, some on Colombia’s left have accused him of being "neoliberal.") He managed to assemble sound, competent teams that worked very hard. So though Mockus’s quirks stood out in Bogotá’s traditional political culture, his performance earned him considerable praise.

That brings us to Mockus’s remarkable rise on the national stage. He has moved from just 1 percent in the polls in February to nearly 10 percent at the end of the March, 20 percent by mid-April, and almost 40 percent today.

How did Mockus do it? The key was tapping into a broad fatigue with political infighting and polarization, something Colombians might not have realized they were feeling until Mockus came along. Colombians, it turned out, were eager for a more relaxed, calmer style of leadership than Uribe’s frequently confrontational approach. To be sure, Colombians widely credit Uribe with helping to subdue the FARC insurgency and paramilitary forces and bring greater security to the country. Uribe’s take-charge political style was reassuring at the time. But after nearly eight years, that quality — though still valued, as evidenced by opinion polls — seems to be wearing thin.

Shrewdly, Mockus has refused to define himself as either pro- or anti-Uribe. He has claimed, instead, to be "post Uribe." That largely sums up popular opinion (in favor of Uribe, but also ready for the next phase) and was in sharp contrast to the other candidates, Santos included, who mostly claimed the mantle either of "uribismo" or "anti-uribismo." While those politicians weren’t watching, however, the debate had moved on.

Mockus has already made good on his promise to usher in a new era of political harmony, in the conduct of the newly created Green Party’s first primary. Running in an extremely cordial race in March against two other popular former Bogotá mayors, Enrique Peñalosa and Luis Garzón, Mockus won the contest and was able to show, at the same time, that he could pull off a nondivisive political campaign.

Mockus’s next good move was naming Sergio Fajardo, a highly regarded former mayor of Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín, as his vice presidential candidate. Fajardo, also a former math professor, had begun his own presidential campaign, which quickly fizzled. When he accepted Mockus’s offer, it proved, as the Colombian newsmagazine Semana noted, that "two mathematicians do not add but multiply." Mockus even got a political bounce after acknowledging that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The public admission reinforced his forthright image.

Although Mockus is playing off Uribe’s weakness, he’s also benefiting greatly from the current president’s successes, something that would be even truer for a President Mockus. Thanks to Uribe, Colombia’s security situation has substantially improved (despite some recent backsliding), and Mockus would be able to concentrate on of the issues that interest him more: education, anti-corruption efforts, and good governance.

Yet Mockus is hardly a dove when it comes to security, which remains a crucial concern for many Colombians. The drug trade continues largely unabated, fueling the FARC insurgency and many criminal gangs. Although untested at the national level, Mockus’s record in Bogotá gives him credibility. His position on FARC is also clear: Mockus long ago ruled out any negotiations so long as the leftist rebels continue to kidnap.

Hugo Chávez is the other ubiquitous foreign-policy issue, and here, the split between Mockus and Santos cuts both ways. Santos’s tougher stance against the Venezuelan president calms fears of an arms buildup next door, which most believe is already underway. But Mockus’s pragmatism also wins points for those who worry about an escalation, particularly if that meant further border closings of the sort that have already hit Colombian exports hard. Some hope a Mockus presidency would have a tranquilizing effect.

Of course, Santos has the party machine on his side, and he was seen as an effective defense minister, no small matter in a country still confronting an internal war. But at this point, Mockus has the momentum, and polls show that Santos might have reached a ceiling.

Whatever happens, the uncertainties and effervescence of the current political moment are salutary for Colombia’s democracy. The Mockus phenomenon has refreshed the land that inspired Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism. Sometimes truth is a better read than fiction.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

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