Although Antanas Mockus’ anti-corruption platform helped him gain a large following, it also scared Colombia’s corrupt political establishment into taking action against him. The resulting onslaught, combined with Mockus’ own blunders and Uribe’s popularity, makes victory almost impossible for the Greens.
Let’s face it: Juan Manuel Santos beat Antanas Mockus in the first round of voting primarily because he was the more popular candidate. Mockus’ savvy online campaigning and catchy slogans were not enough to sway the majority of Colombian voters. Although the Green Party’s meteoric rise has been impressive, it seems almost certain that Santos will be the next President after all the votes are counted at the end of this month.
Two of the Mockus campaign’s central problems are pretty evident. The first is that he and his team made plenty of mistakes in the final days of the campaign. It may be a bit harsh to criticize a candidate that has risen from virtual irrelevance to become Santos’s main challenger in just a few months, but Mockus’ errors were completely avoidable and very costly. He was naïve, for example, to think that he could get away with appearing uncertain about whether or not extraditing President Uribe was legal. Though he later clarified that he would not extradite Uribe, he should have known that such a blunder would come at a huge political cost. (Interestingly, the “interviewer” who cornered Mockus into his silly answer is a known Santos supporter and a former advisor to paramilitary warlord Carlos Castano.)
Mockus’ second obvious problem is that, contrary to what some analysts had been saying, Santos has indeed inherited President Uribe’s popularity. Although unemployment is now a bigger concern for voters than violence (thanks in part to Uribe’s success in reducing crime rates), most Colombians are still apprehensive about veering from the outgoing president’s hard-line security policies. So, despite Santos’s total lack of charisma and his comparatively low approval ratings, he has managed to capitalize on his image as Uribe’s heir apparent.
A far less visible and frequently overlooked factor hurting Mockus’s chances is the fact that his main asset, his anti-corruption stance, has recently become a political hindrance. The Green Party’s rise to prominence sent shockwaves through the political establishment and many corrupt officials began to see Mockus as a threat to their livelihoods. Around the same time, Santos hired several ruthless political advisers known for running dirty smear campaigns. The outcome was an anti-Mockus onslaught of lies, intimidation and malfeasance.
Of course, Santos himself was probably not directly involved in any wrongdoing, although he has not gone out of his way to denounce it either. In Bucaramanga, for example, local government officials told poor families that if they did not vote for Santos, they would lose their right to government subsidies under the Familias en Accion welfare program. Later, government vehicles bussed families from poor neighborhoods to what some thought was a community meeting and others thought was a Familias en Accion function. Instead, these families found themselves filling empty space at a Santos campaign rally. When a television reporter asked Santos about the incident, he hastily and angrily dodged the question.
There were also irregularities at polling stations. Near some booths in rural areas, unknown individuals hung fake Green Party banners that read “I would extradite President Uribe.” Police groups assigned to polling stations also acted illegally in Santos’s favor. Several witnesses and investigative reporters noted that the police allowed Santos supporters to sport U Party shirts and even park an official campaign truck in front of a polling location in Bogotá. By contrast, the authorities were much harder on Mockus supporters and ordered anybody wearing green clothing to change.
There are even suspicious that the Santos team, which has plenty of friends in Colombia’s major media groups, was behind the media’s recent insistence on investigating Mockus’s religious views, his alleged sympathy toward Hugo Chavez and his misconstrued opinion on the potential extradition of Uribe. This would hardly be surprising coming from a campaign team that includes J.J. Rendon, a highly successful Venezuelan advisor who specializes in personal smear campaigns.
The establishment’s use of sleazy tactics against Mockus is hardly surprising. In Colombia’s congressional elections this past March, corruption was rampant. In most cases, pro-Uribe parties were behind the wrongdoing. What is perhaps more surprising is that little has been done to prevent the repetition of such wrongdoing in the presidential election. This is not to say that Santos’s first-round victory is due to massive electoral fraud; U Party candidate was destined to win anyway. Nevertheless, he cannot credibly claim to have won fairly. In the months following his probably second-round victory, it is likely that we will see more evidence of wrongdoings by his campaign and its allies.
In short, because Mockus focused so heavily on eradicating corruption, his campaign was self-defeating from the start. It is urgent that Colombia deal with the problem of corruption, but any presidential campaign that explicitly declares war on political malfeasance must be prepared to confront sleazy official’s political and financial arsenal. Mockus, with his utopian slogans and sunflowers, was not prepared at all.