Has Colombia found its Obama?

BOGOTA, Colombia — He got married on an elephant. He dispatched mimes into the streets to shame drivers into respecting pedestrians. He took a televised shower to demonstrate how citizens could conserve water.

There is no telling what Antanas Mockus might do should he become Colombia’s next president — a once far-fetched prospect that is becoming ever more likely as “Mockusmania” sweeps the country. The Green Party candidate is now polling neck-and-neck with former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, according to a Datexco poll last week.

Behind Mockus’ rapid rise in the polls is a campaign strategy that capitalizes on Colombia's unusual political juncture. He has turned his atypical characteristics into an advantage — and he’s done so by employing many of the same messages and tactics that Barack Obama used.

“Mockus represents much of what Obama did to American voters: someone who was going to change politics as usual,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

He is running on a platform of anti-corruption and transparency, pledging meticulous oversight of public funds and a cultural transformation to reduce illegal practices. The two-time mayor of Bogota is remembered for dressing up as “Super Citizen” to teach residents to be more civil, asking Bogotanos to voluntarily pay more taxes, investing heavily in public transportation and cutting homicide rates almost by half.

But while Obama replaced a deeply unpopular president, the Colombian candidates are vying to succeed a president who enjoys 70 percent approval ratings. Alvaro Uribe is credited with bringing security to many parts of the country and beating back rebel groups.

By presenting himself as the candidate who is the next best thing to Uribe himself, Santos bet on locking in the presidency. But Uribe’s last term has been plagued by scandals, such as illegal wire-tappings and murders of civilians by the army.

“The people who rejected this series of things found where they could group together — in Mockus,” said Hector Riveros, Mockus’ campaign strategist and a former vice minister of the interior.

Mockus’ campaign identified a wide swath of the electorate who are moderate Uribistas and want to see his successful policies continued. But this group — about 25 percent of voters, Riveros estimates — also want fresh leadership and an end to politics rife with scandals and corruption.

Mockus has appealed to them not by being anti-Uribe, but by being what he calls “post-Uribe.” He promises to continue Uribe’s successful policies and maintain a firm hand with guerrilla groups, while ushering in a new form of governance and citizenry. His focus on education and social investment appeals to voters who increasingly care about more than security concerns.

“The political formula of Santos is continuity. With Mockus, it’s change,” said Alvaro Forero, a newspaper columnist and director of the Leadership and Democracy Foundation.

Like Obama, Mockus comes from outside the traditional political machinery, though he is no political novice. The son of Lithuanian immigrants and a former mathematician and philosopher with a chin curtain beard, Mockus’ image stands in stark contrast to his main rival, who comes from a powerful political and newspaper family. Santos’ recent position as defense minister followed positions including foreign trade minister and a post at his family's El Tiempo newspaper.

“[Mockus’] weakness is that he’s not a party person, but it’s also his strength, and what gives him appeal,” said Shifter.

Mockus’ campaign highlights him as a teacher who will exercise intellect and moral rigor in his leadership and who brings political experience without the dirt — a claim backed by his clean mayoral terms.

His image appeals to Colombians disillusioned by corrupt and opportunist politicians. “Youth want a role model they can follow, and we see that in Mockus — he’s a professor, not a presidential type, said Angela Ortega, 19, a university psychology student at a recent rally geared at youth in Bogota.

The messages Mockus calls out to the crowd strongly echo those heard during Obama’s campaign: Change. Hope. Inclusion and unity.

“Mockus represents what Obama represents, but Colombianized,” said Forero.

Certain slogans, such as “Life is sacred,” particularly resonate with Colombians who continue to lose thousands of lives to the armed conflict.

Just as Obama told Americans they were responsible for being the agents of change, “Mockus says citizens have to change and they have to participate,” said Forero.

That invitation has brought supporters to his side who normally are unlikely to vote or participate in campaigns. Emmanuel Morales recently traveled to his native coastal town to deliver T-shirts, posters and bracelets and spread Mockus’ message on his community’s radio station. “I have never participated in a presidential campaign before,” said Morales, 42.

Around him, fans hold the symbols of Mockus’ campaign: sunflowers (for peace) and pencils (for education). They wave bright green placards — one popular portrait is painted in the same style of the ubiquitous Obama portrait, but different shades of green cover Mockus’ face.

But Mockus is not relying on winning the election with cool posters and sunflowers. He asks the crowd: “Who are the bosses of the internet?”

A sea of green T-shirts calls back: “The Green Wave!”

Following Obama’s footsteps, Mockus has championed the use of the internet and social media, which are shaping the campaign and may prove pivotal in election results.

The Mockus campaign posts catchy commercials on YouTube. Santos’ Facebook page had 178,421 members while Mockus’ boasted 687,558 as of publication time. According to the Colombian press, Mockus’ Facebook page is one of the five fastest-growing Facebook pages in the world. “I think our key was being able to identify the real usefulness of the internet in the political campaign and give tasks to supporters,” said Riveros. Daily Facebook alerts ask fans to tell 10 people without internet about the campaign or invite them to a flashmob.

Mockus is not the only one who has looked to Obama’s internet strategy — investigative website La Silla Vacia reported Thursday that Ravi Singh, known as the “guru” who led Obama’s internet strategy, is now in Colombia to assist Santos’ campaign.

With no candidate likely to win 50 percent of the vote May 30, a second round of voting June 20 is expected to put Santos and Mockus head to head for the presidency. “The question now is whether Mockus will be able to maintain the excitement,” said Forero.