As Colombians head to the polls tomorrow, what once looked like a forgone conclusion has recently turned into a razor-tight presidential race that is too close to call.
Most people had expected former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos, the frontrunner in recent months, to clinch the presidency as heir to the hardline security policies of the outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe. But an outsider, Antanas Mockus, has risen meteorically in the polls.
A philosopher-mathematician and two-time mayor of Bogotá, Mockus now finds himself in a virtual tie with Santos. Polls suggest that neither candidate will win more than the 50 per cent needed to avoid a second-round showdown in June.
It’s often been noted that Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, has determined the outcome of the last three elections. In 1998, Andrés Pastrana was elected on a peace platform with the rebels, and when that failed miserably, Colombians voted in Uribe in 2002 and then again in 2006 for his promise to crush the rebels.
An eight-year US-backed military crackdown against the FARC has improved security and put the rebels on the back foot. Now polls say Colombians are more concerned about unemployment, healthcare and education than with rebel violence.
And Colombians are also fed up with sleaze and nepotism, including bribes-for-votes scandals, extra-judicial killings and illegal wire-tapping.
It’s precisely this dissatisfaction with the traditional political elite and growing frustration with corruption that Mockus has successfully tapped into.
Running on an anti-corruption ticket, his mantra “public funds are sacred”, has resonated particularly with young urban voters, in a country where some $2bn a year are siphoned off in kickbacks.
“The rise of Mockus is a protest vote against all the corruption scandals,” says Armando Borrero, a Colombian political analyst. “Mockus has a proven track record as mayor for fighting against corruption and playing it clean. People trust him and perceive him as an honest man and, as such, a way out for the country.”
Both Mockus, the only son of Lithuanian immigrants, and his running mate, Sergio Fajardo, also a former city mayor, are seen as independent from the established elite, something his rival Santos, who belongs to an influential Colombian political dynasty, can’t feign to be.
Still, it’s not a sure thing whether Colombia and its staid political culture is ready yet to embrace an unconventional and quirky intellectual who has promised to raise taxes for the rich and who is known for some headline-grabbing stunts. Mockus, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, once rode an elephant to a circus where he then got married. He has also used street mime artists to enforce traffic laws, and is most famous for mooning a rowdy audience of university students. (It cost him his job as university rector but it shut the crowd up.)
Whether or not Mockus gets to wear the presidential sash when power is handed over in August, he has managed to shake up the political establishment. And unlike his rival, Mockus has done this without the support of a solid party machine and big business donations. That’s a big achievement in itself.