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Colombia's Antanas Mockus

hopes his Super Citizen past


will help make him president
Antanas Mockus is leading the race to
become Colombia's next president, but
has had to leave his spandex suit
behind him.

by Harriet Alexander and Jon Stibbs in Bogotá


Published: 8:30AM BST 23 May 2010

When Antanas Mockus was elected mayor of Colombia's crime-


ridden capital, Bogota, he appeared in a spandex suit and cloak with
his chest emblazoned with a giant 'S' for Supercitizen

Just like Superman, he swore to use his powers to vanquish wrong-


doing and benefit humanity. Yet when Antanas Mockus was elected
mayor of Colombia's crime-ridden capital, Bogota, he took the
comparison literally - appearing in a spandex suit and cloak with his
chest emblazoned with a giant "S" for Supercitizen.

His intention, he said, was to inspire the city's residents to fight to


improve their lives and environment. And, much like Ken
Livingstone with his newts and Boris Johnson with his bicycling,
bumbling ways, Mr Mockus has proved that eccentricity need not be
a barrier to the higher echelons of politics.

The former maths professor, 58, is now running for president - and
has emerged as the front-running candidate ahead of the first round
of the Columbian election on May 30.

In an electoral campaign that has electrified the South American


nation, last week he surged in the polls to overtake his staider rivals
- most notably the former defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos,
who had been viewed as the shoo-in heir to Alvaro Uribe, the pro-
Washington incumbent who is about to step down. "Prepare for
success, but prepare for the problems," Mr Mockus told an election
rally on Friday afternoon.

While both Mr Uribe and Mr Santos have earned credit for standing
up to the country's Marxist rebel movements, drug producers and
kidnap gangs, they have also been tarred by alleged human rights
abuses, links between lawmakers and right-wing militia gangs, and
illegal wiretaps of opposition leaders.

Mr Mockus, who is running for the Colombian Green Party, has


capitalised on growing disquiet about some of Mr Uribe's tactics,
promising to clean up the country's notoriously dirty politics and
provide a refreshing, if unorthodox, break from the political cliques
that have prevailed for decades.

"Clearly we have come to a stage where people are asking, 'And


now what?'" said Mr Mockus. "I want to build upon what has already
been built, recognise what has been done well, and use it to cement
what is yet to come."

In a country long-dominated by political strongmen of one type or


another, Mr Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, has prided
himself on his ability to forge a new, less confrontational brand of
politics, devoid of Colombian machismo.

As the former rector of the Universidad Nacional, he has made


education a key pillar of his campaign. At rallies, he holds a giant
pencil above his head, telling supporters that "the history of
Colombia will be written with pens, and not with blood." He has also
promised to invest 15 per cent of income from Colombia's
petroleum company, Ecopetrol, in education.

"We have allocated enormous amounts of resources to war, and so


for once we are going to allocate an extraordinary amount of
resources to peace," he said. "And not just peace in general, but for
education."
Not all of Supercitizen's attempts to challenge convention, however,
have been quite on the mark. In 1993, while university rector, he
astonished an audience of students - and the wider nation - by
dropping his trousers in front of them to gain their attention. The
gesture, he claimed, should be understood "as a part of the
resources which an artist can use."

Twice elected as mayor of Bogotá - in 1995 and again, after a break,


in 2001 - he honed his unusual style further, treating his fiefdom as
"a classroom of 6.5 million".

Despairing of Bogotá's chaotic traffic, he hired 420 mime artists to


mock drivers committing traffic offences, believing that it was worse
for a Colombian to be humiliated than to pay a fine. Traffic fatalities
dropped by more than half - perhaps also influenced by his decision
to paint a star on the pavement where every pedestrian had been
killed in a car accident.

When women said they felt unsafe after dark, he launched a "Night
for Women" and asked the city's men to stay at home to care for
their children. Some 700,000 women went out to open-air concerts
that Mr Mockus dedicated to them.

Mr Mockus said his administrations were enlightened by academic


concepts, including the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist
Douglass North, who has investigated the relationship between
formal and informal rules; and Jürgen Habermas' work on "how
dialogue creates social capital".

While such talk probably fell flat on the average Bogota citizen, his
results were nonetheless impressive. The murder rate fell by almost
three quarters, and alcohol-related violence also dropped – thanks
partly to a simple regulation forcing bars to shut at 1am.

Buoyed by his achievements, Mr Mockus first ran unsuccessfully for


president in 1998, but it is only now that he is being taken seriously.
If he triumphs, he will not just be the world's first ever Green head
of state, but the first to be elected while suffering from Parkinson's
Disease. He admitted in April that he had been diagnosed with the
early stages of the condition, and - far from diminishing his support -
his honesty seems to have touched a chord with voters.

"The condition, the doctors tell me, is under control," said Mr


Mockus, a father of four who claims to have another 12 years of
active life ahead of him. "I understand people's concern, but I ask
that they not crucify me for having a physical illness."

Mauricio Romero, professor of political science at Bogotá's Javeriana


University, said: "Mockus's anti-corruption stance and emphasis on
building a civic culture are attractive to a lot of people. He also has
wide support in the business community."

The Mockus campaign team has worked hard. Its headquarters, a


large former family home in northern Bogotá, is a hive of activity
poised just on the productive side of chaos. Dozens of young
volunteers in party T-shirts beaver away, making extensive use of
social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Support for Mr
Mockus rose steadily from just nine per cent in March to 38 per cent
in one poll last week, nine points ahead of Mr Santos. A fresh poll on
Friday put them neck and neck. If neither wins 50 per cent, a second
round run-off will be held on June 20.
But will the elephant-riding, trouser-dropping, Lycra-wearing
eccentric really be able to take on the leftist guerrillas and drug
traffickers who still plague Colombia? Mr Mockus has vowed not to
undo the progress made on those fronts by the Uribe government,
but admits it may be a hard sell.

"A considerable number of Colombians seem prepared to tolerate


any means necessary to achieve peace," he said recently. "That's
why they could be scared of giving power to someone like me, who
prefers to sacrifice points rather than resort to illegitimate methods.
But with legitimate means, you can obtain lasting results."

The election will be eagerly watched by America, which is keen to


ensure that the next Colombian president does not move away from
market-friendly policies, or undo the work of billions of dollars in US
aid aimed at fighting the cocaine-funded guerrilla movement Farc.
"While the Farc still speak the language of kidnapping, there is
nothing to talk about," Mr Mockus said on Friday. "They have to
show that they leave their weapons and war behind, and obey the
constitution."

Washington sees Colombia as a buffer against leftist governments in


neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador, and investors want Mr Uribe's
policies to be continued.

But while the spandex suit is unlikely to be dusted off again if Mr


Mockus does become president, some in Colombia will never be
able to take Supercitizen seriously. "He was not a bad mayor," said
Alejandro Ney, a 40-year-old economist. "But I still think he's a
clown."

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