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Opinion: Close look at Colombian elections

A run-off is looking likely after May 30 polls, but even if Mockus doesn't win he represents the fact that nearly half of Colombians want change.

Presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos of the Party of National Unity or "Party of the U" greets supporters during his closing campaign rally in Cartagena, May 23, 2010. Santos and Antanas Mockus, Colombia's top two presidential candidates, remain deadlocked before the May 30 election but Mockus leads slightly in a likely run-off, a new poll showed. (Jairo Castilla/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Colombia will hold its presidential elections on May 30.

Until recently, pundits took for granted that the winner would be someone with a strong connection with President Alvaro Uribe. Political trends took an unexpected direction in March suggesting that the electorate, although highly supportive of Uribe as a person, wants some change.

The polls are showing a virtual tie between Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former minister of defense, and Antanas Mockus, a two-term former mayor of Bogota who is running as an independent under the newly created Green Party.

Mockus says that he is not anti-Uribe but post-Uribe, and wants to upgrade the successful democratic security strategy by putting more emphasis on legality. He likes to say that the end does not justify the means, implying that he plans to avoid some tactics used during the Uribe administration that are legally questionable, to say the least.

This very simple but powerful message has turned out to be quite appealing to millions that follow him on Twitter and Facebook, which are his main campaign tools. (Some have pointed out the similarity between his campaign tactics and messages and those of Obama.)

But this does not mean that Mockus will win. The polls do not cover the countryside well, which accounts for 25 percent of the population. It is in these areas where democratic security has brought the highest dividend, and that favors Santos who is seen as the architect of the biggest blows to the FARC guerilla. In addition, many Colombians are attached to traditional family values and share a culture that dislikes eccentricity.

Although strong on values and principles, Mockus is short on detail. When confronted with questions on the economy his answers tend to be vague and confusing. When asked about whether he would hypothetically extradite President Uribe, he said that he would follow what the constitution mandates, when it is clear that the constitution does not mandate action in one particular direction. Although he later corrected himself, the erratic answers create some uneasiness in an electorate that understands that Colombia’s problems require concrete actions and clear understanding of the country’s policy framework.