Colombia’s presidential election on May 30 is developing into an unexpectedly tight race between Juan Manuel Santos—incumbent hardliner Alvaro Uribe‘s former defense minister who pledges to continue the current aggressive military campaign against leftist guerillas—and Antanas Mockus, reformist, anti-corruption candidate of the Green Party (Partido Verde). In February, President Uribe was constitutionally barred from running for a third term, leaving Santos as his heir-apparent and presumed shoe-in. But polls are showing Mockus’ potential as an upset victor.
As a two-term mayor of Bogotá, Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, was seen as an idealistic infrastructure wonk with an eccentric streak, promoting bicycle lanes, traffic calming and mass transit. The Economist wryly says he was the city’s “chief pedagogue,” urging bogotanos not to run red lights, dump litter or beat their wives, sometimes dressing up as “Super Citizen” in spandex to get the message across. As the rector of the National University in Bogotá, he once dropped his trousers and mooned an auditorium of unruly students to get their attention.
He formed the Green Party with two other successful mayors of the capital, Luis Eduardo Garzón and Enrique Peñalosa. They marked their rejection of traditional politics with an open primary in which 1.6 million people voted. They got a big boost when a rival independent, former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo, agreed to join Mockus as his vice-presidential candidate. Both men are former mathematics professors.
But don’t expect a Mockus victory to mean Colombia joining South America’s anti-imperialist bloc, led by Venezuela and Bolivia. Mockus and his allies have positioned themselves firmly in the center. They say they are neither with nor against Uribe. Mockus vows to continue the current government’s security policies, but not what he calls Uribe’s “anything goes” attitude that he blames for human rights abuses. He also rules out talks with the FARC guerillas unless they first accept Colombia’s constitution. (PBS, May 12; The Economist, April 29)
The leftist candidate is Gustavo Petro of the Polo Democratico, considered a long shot. Mockus has rejected an alliance with Petro, but left open the possibility of coalition with the Polo Democratico if the election goes into a second round. After Mockus’ decision, Petro blasted him as being in the same “political camp” as Uribe. Mockus stated that uniting with Petro would go against his “no-violence” platform. While acknowledging that Petro has not actually advocated violence, Mockus said he promotes “theories that, one way or another, directly or indirectly, justify violence.” (Reuters, May 11)
Petro, ironically, is a key opponent of plans for US military bases in Colombia, and an outspoken critic of human rights abuses by the Colombian security forces. He has long been a target of illegal surveillance and death threats.
See our last post on Colombia.