The public bickering between Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus on the one hand and President Uribe and his supporters on the other may be a sign of more vibrant, mature and robust political debates to come. For voters, this is unambiguously good news.
It all started when outgoing President Alvaro Uribe publicly criticized presidential hopefuls for their inconsistent views on his hard-line “democratic security” policy. The unnamed target was, of course, Antanas Mockus, the eccentric former mayor of Bogota and current Green Party candidate for the presidency. Eight years ago, when Uribe took office, Mockus was skeptical about democratic security, but he is now promising to preserve core elements of the policy.
Other attacks soon followed. Andres Felipe Arias, an Uribe disciple and former minister who lost the recent Conservative Party primary elections, said that the country could not fight the FARC guerrillas with mimes and sunflowers. This was another thinly veiled jab at Mockus, who famously sent mimes out onto the streets of Bogota to ridicule violators of traffic laws and whose party recently chose the sunflower as its logo.
The timing of these verbal assaults is no coincidence. Although Mockus has been campaigning for months, it was not until a few weeks ago, when he began to creep dangerously close to presidential front-runner and Uribe disciple Juan Manuel Santos in the polls, that he became a target of uribista criticism. Indeed, one reason why the uribistas’ behavior has been so unusually aggressive – acting presidents, for example, are not supposed to speak directly about presidential candidates – is that Mockus’ popularity has caught them (and much of the country) by complete surprise.
It has long been assumed that, barring some miracle for the opposition, an Uribe supporter would win the presidency. Victory seemed so certain that the uribista candidates often appear lazy and overconfident. For example, Santos, though not as charismatic as Uribe, should certainly have done better in the first televised presidential debate. Instead, he was rigid, dull and robotic, even as leftist opposition candidate Gustavo Petro bombarded him with harsh accusations.
Uribe supporters were not alone in believing that their victory was all but inevitable. Though I tend to oppose Uribe’s policies, to predict a centre-left victory was, until very recently, little more than wishful thinking. Just two weeks ago, I wrote a column suggesting that if Mockus even makes it to a run-off round, it would be a momentous achievement that would change conventional wisdom about Colombian politics.
In fact, recent polls indicate that not only will Mockus make it to a run-off, but he even has a decent chance of beating Santos. According to one survey, if the election were held today, Mockus would lose a second round by only about five percentage points. It is therefore not surprising that President Uribe, who until recently was quietly enjoying the final weeks of his incredibly popular two-term presidency, has re-entered the dirty world of Colombian politics to assail the Green Party candidate. His strategy of attack was equally unsurprising. Uribe’s hard-line security policies were a major reason for his immense popularity and he frequently denounces his opponents for their supposed weakness on security issues. Mockus’ academic background, nerdy demeanor and sunflower attire make him an easy target for such criticism.
To the president’s credit, it is almost undeniable that Mockus’s position on the democratic security policy has been inconsistent. Part of the reason is pure political pragmatism. Even if Mockus still objected to elements of democratic security, nominally supporting the policy is almost a prerequisite for political relevance in contemporary Colombia. Another reason may simply be that the facts proved him wrong: Uribe was quite successful at reducing homicide rates, even if that achievement came at the expense of human rights and social justice.
Still, Mockus’ inconsistencies are hardly a reason for concern. For one, the nature and scope of Colombia’s security issues have changed dramatically since Uribe came to office in 2002. Consequently, most politicians and even many Uribistas have since altered their positions on some important aspects of security policy. Moreover, nearly everyone across the Colombian political spectrum agrees that democratic security has become outdated and needs major adjustments in order to meet the country’s evolving security challenges. In other words, the very meaning of the term democratic security is increasingly unclear. I would be more worried if Mockus, or for that matter anyone, had NOT changed their position on the policy over the past eight years.
Following Uribe and Arias’ jabs, Mockus shot back with much more than sunflowers and mimes. He returned Uribe’s accusations of flip-flopping, criticizing the president for contradicting prior statements praising the Bogota mayor’s commitment to citizen security. Indeed, back in 2003, the president frequently spoke of Mockus, then serving his second term as mayor, as a firm ally in the fight against criminal and political violence. To drive the point further, the Green party has posted a video on their website with footage of Uribe awarding Mockus with a national police honor for his role in improving security in Bogota.
As for Arias’ attacks, Mockus responded by defending his use of mimes and sunflowers, even against the FARC. During a recent televised debate, the former mayor actively emphasized his resolve on security issues. Most importantly, he repeatedly ruled out any negotiations with the FARC unless the guerrillas stop kidnapping civilians, policemen and soldiers.
It is too soon to know the medium- and long-term effects of this public spat, but so far it hasn’t put a dent in Mockus’ momentum. The “Green Revolution” in the polls, in the media and on the web shows no sign of slowing down. This says plenty about the former mayor’s unique political skills. Over the past eight years, few people have emerged unscathed from a public war of words with Uribe. Many vocal opponents of the president, for one reason or another, have seen their careers suffer significantly. If Mockus does indeed survive this spat with no harm to his poll numbers, he will be defying the rules of Colombian politics.
But perhaps, rather than defying the rules, Mockus and his party are changing the rules altogether by reaching out to previously silent, apathetic and marginalized voters. Although Uribe supporters did very well in last month’s legislative elections, millions of Colombians, exhausted with the dirty politics and tired rhetoric of both uribistas and the opposition, abstained from voting. Many such people are increasingly willing to listen to Mockus. It is by taking advantage of this previously untapped electoral potential that the Green Party has risen to prominence so quickly.
With these new voters in the picture, the presidential race is becoming less stereotypically Colombian and starting to resemble elements of European and American politics, where debating skills and use of the media matter more than aristocratic surnames and toughness against guerrillas. One notable example of this broad change is political advertisements. The usual Colombian candidate’s TV ad consists of little more than a dull affirmation of loyalty to a certain party or to Uribe himself. By contrast, the Green Party recently released a commercial featuring actors and musicians in sunflower T-shirts explaining why they will vote for Mockus. One could be forgiven for confusing this video, already a hit on YouTube and Facebook, with the similarly hip and celebrity-driven online campaigns in favor of Barack Obama.
The parallels with the American president don’t end there. Like Obama, Mockus is reaching out to politically dormant young people. Traditionally, politicians have neglected the youth vote, partly because of the perception that the only youngsters with an interest in politics are the type of stone-throwing leftists who drove Santos out of a university in Cali a couple of weeks ago. Mockus, however, appeals to the many other young Colombians who yearn for political role models. My generation grew up in a violent and corrupt country with a boring, dishonest and seemingly amoral political elite. Today, of my contemporaries are awakening from their political slumber to join the Mockus revolution in street marches and on Facebook.
One could take the Obama-Mockus comparison even further. Obama’s father was Kenyan; Mockus’ parents were first-generation Lithuanian immigrants. Both are former academics in countries that have historically elected very few academic presidents. True, Uribe spent a few semesters at Harvard and Oxford, but he campaigns more as a tough guy than as a learned scholar. Besides, it is common knowledge that his semesters abroad had more to do with his family’s connections than with his academic achievements.
Still, the differences between Mockus and Obama are as intriguing as their similarities. Indeed, in some ways, Mockus’ political success is even more unlikely than the American president’s. Notably, he is a true outsider and helped build his party from scratch only five months ago. Obama, by contrast, belongs to one of the two major parties in American politics. Moreover, Obama benefited from the fact that the incumbent president, George W. Bush, belonged to the opposing party and was deeply unpopular. Uribe, by contrast, is probably most popular president in Colombian history.
Regardless of whether one supports or opposes Mockus’ candidacy, it is difficult not to be pleased about his impact on Colombian politics. At the very least, he is forcing the uribistas to reinvigorate their tired rhetoric and political strategy. Their initial reaction to Mockus’ meteoric rise – direct public attacks – was somewhat childish and desperate, but perhaps in the coming weeks their strategy will improve. Santos is already beginning to seem more like a candidate and less like a shoo-in. In the most recent debate, he was more lively and engaged, although he struggled to divert attention away from Mockus.
In this way, the bickering between Uribe supporters and the Green Party may therefore be a sign of more mature political discussions to come. Regardless of the outcome of the elections, the obvious winners of all of this will be the Colombian people. For the first time in years, politicians are urgently battling to appeal to the whole of the Colombian electorate, not just party loyalists. What remains of this campaign season will be incredibly intriguing, and the country can thank Mockus for that.