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From pants-dropping professor ... to president of Colombia?

May 21, 2010 |  7:47 am

Mockus colombia

When voters in Colombia go to the polls to pick a new president on May 30, it is highly likely that the candidate who collects the most ballots will be Antanas Mockus, a former math professor and former mayor of the capital, Bogota. In the race to succeed President Alvaro Uribe, the conservative's heir apparent, Juan Manuel Santos, was once considered a shoo-in. Now the former defense minister is trailing in polls.

How did that happen? Call it a winning combination of voters' desire for something fresh and a Web-savvy campaign. (Now doesn't that sound familiar?)

Mockus is a bona fide maverick, a cerebral intellectual who co-founded the Green Party and is building a political base largely on the themes of decency, ethics and good citizenship -- and by harnessing the power of Facebook and Twitter. He's also known for quite a few quirky antics. As rector of the National University, Mockus once dropped his trousers and mooned an auditorium of unruly students. As mayor of Bogota, he'd don a Spandex suit to become "Super Citizen," urging residents to avoid littering, running red lights or indulging "the rude person inside of us."

In a recent Q&A with L.A. Times special correspondent Chris Kraul, Mockus attributed his rise to a knack for "cooperation." The candidate's running mate is the former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, who also lined up with Colombia's Greens, as Mockus recounts:

"The alliance with Sergio Fajardo produced an avalanche of public confidence, multiplied by the social networks. Before that, four other candidates and I agreed to abide by a popular vote to represent the Green Party. We understood that alone we weren't relevant. ... Our show of unity communicated itself to Colombians, and something interesting happened. We went from failures as individuals to success within a party."

The outgoing Uribe is leaving office with an approval rating higher than 70%, attributed to his aggressive efforts against the FARC rebel group. Yet analysts say Colombians have also grown weary of scandals and alleged human rights abuses under Uribe, thus giving an opening for a political phenomenon in the form of Mockus, a son of Lithuanian immigrants with an Amish-style beard.

Asked whether he'd continue Uribe's strategy against the FARC, Mockus told Kraul he'd "use television dramas to show the conflict of conscience of the criminal," adding that "art captures injustice in its universality and is a way to teach."

On Thursday, a new poll conducted by the University of Medellin showed Mockus edging out Santos in the final stretch of the race, and winning handily in a runoff with his top competitor.

But don't count Santos out just yet. The blog Lat/Am Daily notes that Uribe's preferred candidate has brought in a "dirty war" campaign strategist to help his flagging numbers, which is certain to make the next few days quite interesting in the race for Colombia's presidency.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Antanas Mockus campaigning for the presidency of Colombia. Credit: Facebook.com

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