16 abril 2010

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The Green Revolution

POLITICSCan Antanas Mockus become the Colombian president without the support of traditional politics?

The Green Revolution.

In every presidential election there is an opinion phenomenon. In 1998 it was Noemi Sanín, who got about three million votes in the first round and was about to reach the run-off. In 2002 Álvaro Uribe won in the first round and repeated the feat four years later. In 2010 the turn is for Antanas Mockus, and what remains to be seen is whether his candidacy will lead to a moral victory like Noemi did 12 years ago or to a real triumph like Uribe's.  

It all started with ‘The Three Tenors’ strategy -Mockus, Enrique Peñalosa and Luis Eduardo Garzón, all former mayors of Bogotá-, who out of nowhere became the surpriseof the primaries held on March 14 with 1,823,000 votes. The campaign was characterized by cordiality and freshness, although the three former mayors had been political competitors. Mockus emerged as the winner and became an alternative that changed the political chessboard.

The green revolution took off last week thanks to an opinion push: Sergio Fajardo’s support. In a country where the vice president is not usually important and in which those with presidential aspirations tend to dismiss the charge, Fajardo (the former mayor of Medellin) had the humility to accept it. With this gesture he demonstrated that two mathematicians do not add but multiply. The proof is the tsunami they have created on Facebook, where all the other candidates do not come close to the fans that Mockus has. In the world of traditional politics this is seen as David faced to Goliath represented by Juan Manuel Santos (Uribe’s former defense minister) or Noemí Sanín (now running for the Conservative Party). In Internet, Goliath is Antanas Mockus, who is approaching 300,000 fans, with an average of 10,000 new supporters per day. Both, Juan Manuel Santos and Noemi Sanín, have only 33,000 and 6,000, respectively. In developed countries, voters eventually follow Internet. That is the true explanation of the Obama phenomenon. In developing countries this effect is not that automatic. But for now, in two polls published last week, Mockus doubled the intention of voting and appears in second place, above Noemi Sanín. Yet it remains to be seen, how far the green tide will go.

In any case there is a new political reality: the blending of Mockus-Fajardo, and the big question is whether they will be in the run-off election. And if so, whether they actually mean a danger to Juan Manuel Santos, so far the favorite in all the polls.

The answer to both questions appears to be yes. And the reason is that, because it is an opinion phenomenon, it’s difficult to anticipate how far it will reach. Especially in Mockus case, because he rejects anything related with traditional politics. In Colombia, despite Uribe’s popularity, people are claiming a change, particularly young citizens. The only force comparable to Uribe is not the ‘antiuribismo’ but that of something different. And Mockus embodies it. In a certain way, he could be described as a freak in a country accustomed to the purposes and not the means, but he also appears as a theoretical educator whose philosophy is centered on ethics.

These characteristics, with their strengths and weaknesses, are known since he was Bogotá’s mayor. His arrival to the district administration was an adventure at that time. It had been preceded by a scandal in which he took off his pants in front of a group of students, episode that forced him to quit as dean from the Universidad Nacional and affected his prestige as a public figure. After that he made a campaign full of symbolisms. It included throwing glasses of water, dressing as a superhero or, when he was candidate for second time, apologizing for retiring from his first term as mayor before time to seek the presidency in 1998 by taking a bath dressed in a fountain of Bogotá’s Parque Nacional.

As Mayor he continued applying the same methodology of educational campaigns to disseminate the civic culture lessons, such as the mimes that acted as traffic police. Despite these formulas were exotic, his administration has been generally regarded as successful. People remembers his obsession to educate Bogotá that led citizens to walk on the pedestrian crosses, use the seat belt, save water and pay taxes voluntarily. However, in order to evaluate him as a potential president, is even more important the fact that he was fiscally responsible, firm dealing with public order and too bad with the political class, particularly, with Bogotá’s Council. He is not an extraordinary manager. While he makes great efforts to build teams, he tends to do endless meetings with philosophical discussions that do not always lead to concrete results. But even with these shortcomings as executor, his two terms are associated with a transformation period of the capital, merit which he shares with Enrique Peñalosa, now his green teammate.

From the human point of view, Mockus is a distant man, but that generates confidence because of his transparency and authenticity. He appears to be primarily an honest and good person. His ideas and attitudes aren’t false and do not seem to be the result of strategic calculations or electoral marketing. He is rebellious and is characterized by a rare combination of intellectual arrogance and his willingness to recognize mistakes and contrary opinions, if they are well argued. He is also stubborn yet unsure to take decisions, and a sensitive man occasionally prone to melancholy.

The big question now is how to operate the sui generis Mockus method to campaign the next five weeks until the first round, and an additional three for the run-off, if he can get there. Mockus seems to have returned to one of those moments in which his particular style works. He has left behind his symbolism excesses and is projecting more as a statesman and less as a clown.

His first moves have surprised positively: in addition to his political marriage to Fajardo, he scored a hit by not charging the state the full primaries replacement cost which he is entitled, a gesture that was interpreted as a saving of 4 billions pesos (U$ 2 million) for the Treasury. He also won points for accepting he has an incipient stage of Parkinson's disease. This produced a flood of Internet messages in which the senders recognized transparency and honesty, and expressed their solidarity.

It is still premature to state that Mockus will definitely be in the presidential run-off. But for now, the fact is that he does represent a threat to the leading position held by Juan Manuel Santos. Without a doubt, those in other parties like the U party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the PDA and Cambio Radical, have not yet had the chance to accept the green revolution that Mockus and Fajardo have started. Until now, Santos and Sanin were enmeshed in a two-sided battle: that of winning credibility as heirs of Uribe’s democratic security and that of adding on traditional politicians as supporters. In the eyes of Mockus’s followers, these two represent the same and have one foot in the past.

The polls show that the security issue, FARC especially, is not on the top of mind of the citizens. The achievements of the armed forces in Uribe’s eight years in office reigned in the guerrilla groups and improved security indicators. Even though the mission is not accomplished, it is well underway. On the other side, the economic crisis created severe problems that affect people directly, like unemployment and poverty, neither of which has been hailed by Santos or Noemí.

It is also important to remember that Uribe’s last stretch in the presidency has been blemished by various scandals, like the wire-tappings conducted by DAS, the yidispolitica, the para-política, and the Agro Ingreso Seguro scandal. Even though they have not touched president Uribe’s image, they may foster a collective feeling that beckons a radical change in traditional politics and government behavior.

In other countries, the famous electoral pendulum fluctuates between left and right. But in Colombia, it is a matter of styles. And Mockus’s discourse against the “short-cut” culture and his “democratic legality” may find fertile ground among the educated electorate. The former mayor does not tire of stating that “not everything is allowed”, a message that affects a government like Uribe’s.

As it stands today, Mockus is winning votes while his two main rivals, Santos and Sanin, are enmeshed in a battle to assure the backing of Colombia’s political class as well as the support of other, least-optioned candidates. Yet, Mockus’s dependence on the opinion-vote may prevent the greens from assuring the presidency.

In Colombia, no candidate has won the presidency with the opinion-vote alone. A vote that according to the most optimistic scenario, reaches 60 per cent. This vote is usually accompanied by some degree of “old politics”. Yet Mockus has clearly separated himself from that. And even though there may be congressmen who are willing to get on the “green train” due to their great position on the polls and true possibilities of triumph, if anything has distinguished Mockus and Fajardo from the other competitors is their disapproval of such behavior. They have even lost elections because they rejected the support of big politicians.

In the hypothetical scenario of a run-off election between Mockus and Santos, the latter would most probable absorb all other party structures and Mockus would advance among the academia, op-ed authors, consumers of new technologies and, above all, young voters. But there is still doubt that this will be enough to counter their political marketing strategy. According to the last poll, Mockus and Fajardo still have problems in the rural country and their support is very concentrated in the higher echelons of society, especially in Bogotá and Medellín. The opinion vote is more effective in polls that in elections and reaching smaller cities is easier with the help of a local leader than with broad band Internet.

The rise of the green tide depends on the number of young persons who become a part of it, just like it happened in the United States with Obama two years ago. Will they? Until now, young people have been skeptical and have had a low turnout. Mockus and Fajardo know they must captivate them in order to win. There are more than 3 million people who will vote for the first time in 2010. This is exactly why the green revolution depends on the collective feeling, growing among the young, of transforming the country. Yet, it is hard to say whether their involvement in politics will be enough to change political tendencies.

The presidential elections of 2010 will be marked by the battle between the outsiders—Mockus and Fajardo—and the establishment, represented by Santos or Noemí. Yet, both outsiders have been elected by popular vote and have been mayors of the most important cities of the country while Santos and Noemi have had a long career in the public sector but have never been elected. Quite the paradox.

Yet, the positions held by Santos and Noemí are better looked upon and are excellent credentials for a presidential hopeful, at least from a traditional point of view. Due to his academic background, Mockus may have the best brain to create an ideal country, but he most prove he is also able to handle Colombia’s imperfections. Along with Fajardo, Peñalosa and Garzón, he must convince voters that their experience as mayors of Bogota and Medellin groomed them to lead a nation, and that their academic-mathematic-philosophic character is as attractive as it is useful, especially to deal with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, handle the guerrilla, fight the drug-dealing business, negotiate with Congress and captivate the country beyond the four biggest cities. Mockus would reach the presidency with just 5 congressmen, without a strong party and with no chemistry with the traditional political class. It is a fact that Congress is currently the most unpopular institution of the country. Yet, it is still a necessary branch of public power that must be handled with tact in order to be able to govern the country. Because of this and other factors, many believe the green candidate is apt to be characterized by Victor Hugo’s famous phrase about Colombia’s Constitution of 1863: “that only works in a country of angels.”

But in a country that is yearning for change, nobody can clearly anticipate the reach that the political phenomenon called Antanas Mockus may achieve. With a candidate that sometimes looks like a professor, a priest and a prophet, the political campaign has certainly had a change of tone, leading men and subjects. It has forced everybody—analysts, candidates and electors—to rethink the political scenery. Until now, nobody had the green revolution in mind.


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