Politically astute outsider Mockus making ground in campaign for president of Colombia

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

BUCARAMANGA, COLOMBIA -- Colombians have long known Antanas Mockus for his antics, such as the time he mooned an auditorium full of rowdy students during his stint as a university president. And how he got married atop an elephant.

Then there were the occasions during his two terms as Bogota mayor when he donned a spandex suit and became Super Citizen to lecture residents about civics.

Some have called him "a little strange," as Mockus acknowledged Thursday in an interview. Soon, Colombians may be calling him president.

Polls increasingly show that Mockus, who is the son of Lithuanian immigrants and whose trademark is an Amish-style beard, might just win the presidency in elections to succeed Alvaro Uribe, a U.S.-backed hard-liner who was prevented from running for a third term. A first round of voting takes place May 30, with a second scheduled next month if no candidate wins 50 percent.

Political analysts and commentators call Mockus's rise a political phenomenon because he differs so markedly in style and substance from Uribe, who marshaled more than $6 billion in U.S. aid to batter the rebel forces that have plagued Colombia. That gave Uribe a 70 percent approval rating, and pundits predicted that his natural heir, former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, would easily sweep to victory.

Mockus, a 58-year-old former mathematician, likes to say that he is not anti-Uribe but post-Uribe. He has said he would continue popular policies, such as the fight against armed groups, but also pledges to bring civility and transparency to government.

"People are thinking to themselves, 'I am good, and I see myself in this leader, who even appears naively good,' " said Mockus, speaking in a bulletproof 4x4 transporting him to a campaign stop in this northern city. "It is like the people feel the need to believe in a process that calls for people to be good."

Mockus's running mate is a former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, also a former mathematician. Two other former Bogota mayors, Luis Eduardo Garzon and Enrique Pe?alosa, campaign alongside them, hammering home the message that they offer technocratic competence and honesty.

'New politics'

Mockus's campaign managers say his administration would contrast sharply with what critics call the downside of Uribe's government: confrontation and scandal, including revelations that the secret police spied on opponents and helped hit men kill leftist activists.

Mockus, who heads the Green Party, has run a shoestring campaign, relying on students adept at getting the word out through Facebook and Twitter.

"People in Colombia are tired of corruption, old-style politics, and Mockus and Fajardo are now trying to represent this new politics," Andres Pastrana, a former president, said in a recent interview.

That Aurelijus Rutenis Antanas Mockus Sivickas would have much of a chance in this country of 45 million would seem surprising, at least on the surface. In some ways, Colombia is an insular, inward-looking country that does not have the immigrant tradition common in other Latin American countries. Colombians rarely elect populists for high office, let alone charismatic, anti-establishment types who are eccentric or prone to sometimes bizarre behavior.

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