Colombia: Revenge of the “Nerds”

With the presidential elections only a month away, the campaign is taking an unexpected turn. Former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos appeared to be the sure winner, but a series of events brought the former Mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus, to the forefront. Mockus is a mathematician, of Lithuanian descent, with a degree from the University of Burgundy, in Dijon. He also has a Masters of Art in Philosophy from the National University of Colombia. Mockus began his academic career in 1975, and rose to the position of President by 1991. In 1995, he moved into the political arena and was elected the Mayor of Bogota. At the time, the city was in turmoil, besieged by terrorist attacks and rampant crime. He addressed the problem by raising the public’s awareness of their civic responsibilities. This eventually helped restore order to the capital.

In 2000, Mockus was elected for a second term in office, and he introduced an innovative, and inexpensive, transportation system that completely transformed the city. Mockus was always a colorful character, employing publicity stunts in order to gain the public’s attention to important social issues. Less than two months ago, Mockus had only 9% of the vote. Meanwhile, Santos had 36% and former Foreign Minister Noemi Sanin had 17%. However, the turning point occurred during a nationally televised debate in mid-March, when the two leading candidates viciously ripped each other apart. After decades of bloody conflict, the electorate was tired of the partisan politics that traditionally divided the country. Therefore, Mockus, and his Green party, moved into the vacuum.

Although the Green Party is new to Colombian politics, it is having an important impact on the electoral scene. It is similar to the Green Parties that proliferated throughout Europe. It is a centrist movement, based on improving ecological conditions, pursuing non-violent solutions and deepening the country’s social conscience. With Mockus at the helm, it has intellectual roots. Nevertheless, it also gets its strength from the success and popularity of its leadership. Sergio Fajardo, another mathematician, is Mockus’s running mate. Fajardo has a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he taught mathematics at the University of the Andes—one of the most prestigious academic institutions in Colombia. In 2004, Fajardo was elected Mayor of Medellin. Like Mockus, he received a city in shambles. Gang wars, narco-trafficking and rampant violence made Medellin one of the most dangerous cities in the world. However, Fajardo moved to improve the city’s infrastructure, providing transportation access to the slums so that poor people could find decent jobs and move always from illegal activities. Fajardo’s policies worked wonders. In the space of a few years, the crime rate plunged. Social conditions improved so much that Medellin became one of the most dynamic cities of Latin America. Not surprisingly, the combination of two highly successful and proven mayors quickly transformed the Greens into the party to beat.

A national poll, taken on April 22nd , put Santos narrowly in the lead with 35% of the vote. However, Mockus vaulted into second place, with 34%. Sanin plunged into third place with 12%. The difference between Santos and Mockus was well within the poll’s margin error. Hence, they are tied. Given that Colombia’s electoral rules require a clear majority to win the elections (50% + 1), then the two leading candidates will move into a second round. It will be held on June 20 th . Polls show that a runoff between Mockus and Santos will put the former in the lead with 50% of the vote. Santos has 44%. This means that 6% of the electorate is still on the fence. Therefore, the race is far from over. Nevertheless, many people are moving into the Mockus camp. As the memories of the bloody conflict recede into the collective memory, Colombians want to focus on what lies ahead. This is very similar to what happened in the United Kingdom after the end of World War II. Under the dogged leadership of Winston Churchill, the country was able to stave off Germany and eventually help win the war. However, less than three months after securing Germany’s unconditional surrender, Churchill and the Conservatives lost the elections to Clement Attlee and the Labour Party. While the electorate was extremely grateful to Churchill for his efforts during the war, the country thought that the Labour Party was better prepared to lead Britain into post-war period. The same is occurring in Colombia. The electorate is extremely grateful to Uribe and Santos for ending the bloody civil war, but they now turn to a pair of mathematical “nerds” to push the country into a phase of prosperity and social cohesion.

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