Supporters of Antanas Mockus, a presidential candidate from Colombia’s Green Party, listened to him speak during a campaign stop in Cucuta, Colombia.
By SIMON ROMERO
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Given the staid nature of the political establishment in Colombia, Washington’s top ally in the region, and the broad popularity of President Álvaro Uribe, it seemed a foregone conclusion to many here that his heir apparent would clinch the presidency in the coming elections without too much of a struggle.
So imagine the surprise when Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister and the architect of some of Mr. Uribe’s crushing blows against leftist guerrillas, found himself trailing in recent national polls to a quirky, unpredictable mathematician who murmurs in French about arcane philosophical concepts and wears a chinstrap beard with the air of a latter-day Thoreau.
The surge of this candidate, Antanas Mockus, who served two very colorful terms as Bogotá’s mayor, has made for one of Latin America’s most exceptional presidential races in recent memory, pitting an insurgent intellectual against an establishment that suddenly finds itself on the defensive.
While Mr. Uribe is still admired after making inroads against guerrillas and overseeing a decline in crimes like murders and kidnappings, many voters are weary of the scandals involving his intelligence agency and his supporters’ ties to right-wing paramilitary groups. The specter of violence is also returning, with homicides climbing 16 percent in 2009, possibly affecting Mr. Uribe’s legacy.
Hoping to take advantage of this, Mr. Mockus’s Green Party has campaigned on a platform of social inclusion, battling corruption and finding alternative methods to fight crime, appealing to the many voters who want to focus on issues other than the slow-burning war against cocaine-trafficking rebel groups.
“There’s fatigue with Uribe’s governing style and that of previous governments, as well,” said Elisabeth Ungar, a political scholar at the University of the Andes. “There’s also the expectation that Mockus would focus on a range of social issues, building on his experience as one of the best mayors that Bogotá has had.”
Polls show that the two candidates are likely to face off in a second round of voting after elections on May 30, with some strategists here even suggesting that Mr. Mockus’s momentum could secure him a first-round victory.
The political machine supporting his main rival, Mr. Santos, still makes a victory by Mr. Mockus, who finished with less than 2 percent of the vote in the last election, a big hill to climb. Mr. Mockus commands greater support among prosperous city dwellers than among the poor in the countryside, and polls that focus on cities might be skewing results in his favor. Still, the emergence of Mr. Mockus may signal a major political shift here.
In an interview at his modest home in a middle-class neighborhood this week, Mr. Mockus attributed his frugal campaign’s vibrancy to its obsession with eradicating impunity among public officials.
But while his critics often paint him as an effete intellectual, the mixture of influences that have characterized Mr. Mockus since his venture into mayoral politics in the 1990s makes him ideologically complicated, a trait he both acknowledges and embraces. Dressed in a pinstriped suit, he came across more as an intensely ambitious politician than a university official once known for riding his bicycle to work.
“I’m battling for the integration of ideas from the left and right,” he said, explaining that he was in favor of higher tax collection and a strong government role in society, while also advocating the closing of inefficient state enterprises, cutting the public payroll and supporting private industry.
Mr. Mockus, the only son of Lithuanian immigrants, lit up when he discussed the roots of his ideas. He studied mathematics in France, and said two brief stints at Harvard had reinforced his admiration of the United States and the importance of ties between Bogotá and Washington.
His opponent, Mr. Santos, is well regarded in Washington, but his close ties to Mr. Uribe’s record could be also be a liability on human rights issues, given the scandal over the Colombian Army’s killing of poor civilians and falsely labeling them as guerrillas to inflate combat-kill statistics.
“Mockus wouldn’t have that problem, and the word that is spreading about him is that, if elected, he would be a responsible steward of Colombia’s security and economy,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the policy study group Inter-American Dialogue. He argued that a Mockus presidency might actually boost chances of approval of the United States’ trade deal with Colombia that was stalled by Congressional Democrats over human rights concerns.
Responsible is not always the first word that comes to people’s minds here about Mr. Mockus. He became well known in 1993 after dropping his trousers and mooning an auditorium of unruly students, forcing him to resign as rector of the National University.
“Innovative behavior can be useful when you run out of words,” Mr. Mockus said of the uproar that followed, explaining that he viewed the episode within the concept of French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s “symbolic violence.”
He leveraged the publicity from that episode to run for mayor of Bogotá, a city then on the verge of chaos. In two terms, Mr. Mockus merged lofty political theory with projects to improve quality of life here and got attention by dressing up, with a hint of self-mockery, in a superhero costume as “Supercitizen.”
Beyond that, he used mimes to mock scofflaw pedestrians, held disarmament days for people to turn in guns and even asked people to pay more in voluntary taxes. To nearly everyone’s surprise, some 63,000 people did.
Yet even here in Bogotá, where fear persists over the resilient insurgency in the countryside, some question whether Colombia is ready for Mr. Mockus, despite his pledge that he would maintain Mr. Uribe’s security policies.
“Mockus might be a good president for a country of angels,” said Arturo Ochoa, 63, a retiree. “But what Colombia needs is a leader with a strong hand.”
Others disagree, including many in the growing crowds at campaign stops. “All I want is a less corrupt country with more education opportunities for my children,” said Luz Amaya, 30, a hair stylist, at a Mockus rally here. “With Mockus, respect for the law would finally become Colombia’s priority.”
Jenny Carolina González contributed reporting
A version of this article appeared in print on May 8, 2010, on page A8 of the New York edition.