Time | 5/25/2010 12:00:00 AM
An Unlikely Outsider in Colombia's Presidential Race
May 25--Mockus is widely credited with helping transform the traffic-choked, crime-infested metropolis of 7 million people into one of Latin America's most livable capitals. And he may soon get to work his eccentric magic on an entire nation.
The unorthodox tactics worked: Mockus is widely credited with helping transform the traffic-choked, crime-infested metropolis of 7 million people into one of Latin America's most livable capitals. And he may soon get to work his eccentric magic on an entire nation. As the May 30 presidential election approaches, Mockus, the candidate of Colombia's center-left Green Party, has rocketed to the top or near the top of most polls, neck and neck with the establishment candidate, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. Along the way, Mockus has waged a campaign that seems part university seminar and part church revival. "We've shown that we can compete honestly, with all our cards on the table, and transform the campaign process," Mockus told TIME.
A former mathematics and philosophy professor and the son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mockus, 58, is an unlikely Colombian political icon. He first made headlines in the early 1990s when, as dean of Bogotá's National University, he mooned a group of boisterous students in an effort to gain their attention. (They quieted down.) He was elected Bogotá's mayor in 1994 and again in 2000. But his two previous presidential bids, in 1998 and 2006, came up way short. In 2006 he garnered just 1.2% of the vote. Until a few months ago, polls had him in single digits again. "He was going nowhere," says former Bogotá mayor Paul Bromberg. "I told him, 'Antanas, drop out! This is embarrassing!'"
Instead, Mockus stubbornly plowed ahead — and was rewarded in February when Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled that current President Alvaro Uribe could not run for a third four-year term. Uribe, who won easily in 2002 and 2006 and is credited with restoring security in a country beleaguered by drug-trafficking violence and a four-decade-old war against Marxist guerrillas, is one of Colombia's most popular Presidents. "He would have been very difficult to beat," Mockus concedes at his modest home in a working-class Bogotá neighborhood. But "voters realized," he added, that Santos, anointed by Uribe as his successor, "is not the same as Uribe."
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