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Spandex Superhero Gains in Race to Succeed Uribe

Antanas Mockus
Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogota and presidential candidate for the Partido Verde (Green Party), gestures during a televised debate on April 18, 2010, in Bogota. Photographer: Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images

A Colombian mathematician known for quieting unruly students by mooning them and donning a superhero’s spandex outfit to teach civic values is gaining in a bid to succeed President Alvaro Uribe.

Former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus, dismissed as a clown by opponents, surged into second place in polls ahead of Colombia’s May 30 vote even after announcing that he suffers from early-stage Parkinson’s disease. The polls show the Green Party candidate trails Uribe’s former Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, by as few as 7 percentage points, down from 17 percent last month. In 2006 elections against Uribe, Mockus won just 1 percent.

Uribe’s success in stemming Colombia’s drug-fueled violence is allowing urban voters to focus on other issues, including corruption and unemployment, analysts said. During two terms as mayor, Mockus, 58, used dramatic pranks to advance his goals of improving public transport, cutting crime and balancing the budget. His record has drawn praise from Uribe, who, with a 63 percent approval rating, remains a political kingmaker.

Mockus “shines as a fresh, clean, anti-politician,” said Felipe Botero, a political science professor at Bogota’s Universidad de los Andes. “He’s a question mark, but people like him.”

Under Uribe’s watch, foreign investors have poured as much as $50 billion into industries including oil and coal, according to the central bank. Gross domestic product measured in constant dollars has climbed about 37 percent according to the World Bank, while the benchmark IGBC stock index has risen more than ten-fold.

No Radical Departure

Mockus, who as mayor of the city of 7.5 million boosted tax collection alongside investment, has vowed to continue prudent fiscal management as president. Investors say they aren’t concerned about electing Mockus because the margin for any radical departure from Uribe’s popular policies is minimal.

“Colombia has a very mature economy that honors its debt and that won’t change under Mockus,” said Alvaro Camaro, a vice president at Bogota-based Interbolsa SA, Colombia’s biggest brokerage. “He was excellent at managing Bogota’s economy so there’s no reason to be afraid.”

Mockus has been gaining on Santos, 58, since the constitutional court decided Feb. 26 that Uribe couldn’t run for a third term. Santos was favored by 36 percent to Mockus’s 29 percent in an April 12-14 survey of 1,000 people by the Centro Nacional de Consultoria, or CNC, with a 3 percentage point margin of error. Mockus had 11 percent support in a CNC poll published March 27.

If no candidate wins a majority, the top two will face off in a June 20 runoff.

‘Super Citizen’

The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mockus is captivating urban, middle class voters weary of established political parties, said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington, a policy group supported by businesses.

As mayor starting in 1995, Mockus reduced traffic fatalities by hiring mimes to ridicule motorists who violated driving laws. He took a televised shower with his wife to encourage water conservation and dressed in spandex to be a self-proclaimed “Super Citizen” to encourage civic responsibility. As a university rector, he silenced a room full of noisy students by dropping his pants.

“‘His sense of humor really gets the message across,” said Farnsworth.

Mockus has little support in the rural heartland where Santos is lionized for engineering some of the worst defeats for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the drug-funded rebel group known as the FARC, Botero said.

‘Mimes and Sunflowers’

“You can’t confront the guerrillas with mimes and sunflowers,” Felipe Arias, Uribe’s former agricultural minister, told Caracol Radio after dropping out of the presidential race this month.

Mockus, like many of the nine presidential candidates, pledges to maintain Uribe’s security policies.

Tapping former Medellin Mayor Sergio Fajardo as his vice presidential running mate helped boost his national appeal, analysts said. The 53-year-old Fajardo, also a mathematician, built libraries and extended micro-credit to shantytown dwellers as mayor until 2007 of one of the world’s most violent cities.

“Mockus can taste the victory and that has pushed him to sharpen his political skills,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington.

Colombia receives about $700 million in annual U.S. aid to fight the drug trade that provides 80 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. each year.

Murdered Civilians

Uribe, 57, is credited for slashing one of the world’s highest kidnapping rates by 93 percent to 213 last year compared with 2,882 in 2002, the year he took office.

Santos’ reputation has recently been tarnished by judicial investigations into allegations by human rights groups that the army killed hundreds of civilians who were passed off as guerrillas taken down in combat.

If elected, Mockus will have a difficult time governing, said Botero. His party won 5 of 102 Senate seats in March congressional elections compared with 67 for parties that backed Uribe. Santos’ “La U” party garnered 28 seats.

“I thank Uribe and the U.S. for making the first stage possible,” Mockus said in an April 16 phone interview from a campaign stop in Cali. “I believe that a heavy hand is not enough though. Colombia needs justice too.”

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