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In the land of cocaine and cartels, two math professors could change the equation

BOGOTA, Colombia — In the land of cocaine cartels and kidnappings, why are two mathematics professors dominating the headlines?

It turns out that a political alliance between the two profs — former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus and former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo — could change Colombia’s electoral equation.

In February, the nation’s highest court banned President Alvaro Uribe from running for a third term in the May 30 election. Uribe is wildly popular due to his hard-line security policies and had he been allowed on the ballot, he’d have likely won another four years in office.

Still, Colombia seemed headed for more of the same — Uribismo without Uribe — because two of the president’s allies emerged as frontrunners. Polls give Uribe’s former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos a commanding lead while his former U.K. ambassador, Noemi Sanin, sits in second place.

Now, however, Fajardo has decided to abandon his own presidential aspirations to run as vice president on a ticket headed by Mockus, the Green Party candidate who sits in third place.

Widely viewed as an ethical, if quirky, politician Mockus helped bring down the crime rate and put the city’s finances in order while serving two terms as mayor of Bogota

But Mockus is also something of an egghead whose philosophical speeches go over the heads of ordinary voters. That’s where Fajardo comes in.

Fajardo was widely praised for reducing the murder rate in Pablo Escobar’s old haunt while serving as mayor of Medellin from 2003-2007. He also oozes charisma. (Here he is in a recent interview with Charlie Rose.)

Running mates rarely change the balance in presidential elections. But like many Latin American nations, Colombia has a two-round system. If the winner on May 30 fails to garner more than 50 percent of the votes, the top-two finishers will meet in a June 21 runoff.

And that’s where frontrunners can fall apart.

Take the case of Peru’s 2006 presidential election. Ollanta Humala, a left-wing former military officer, mopped up in the first round but failed to reach the 50 percent threshold.

In the runoff, Humala faced Alan Garcia, who was despised by many Peruvians due to his disastrous term as president in the 1980s. Still, Garcia was seen as the lesser of two evils. Garcia put together a broad coalition of voters who feared Humala was the second coming of Hugo Chavez and easily won the runoff.

With more than a half-dozen candidates in the Colombian race, Santos will be hard-pressed to take the presidency in the first round. Some pundits believe Fajardo could provide Mockus with enough of a boost to reach the runoff.

Should that happen, the Mockus-Fajardo ticket could pose a serious challenge to Santos – Uribe’s would-be successor – by attracting the support of intellectuals, leftists, centrists and people fed up with the corruption and political scandals that plagued Uribe’s eight years in office.

It’s all speculation. And given Uribe’s popularity, Santos still seems to have the upper hand. But as Mockus said of his alliance with Fajardo: “In unity, there is strength.”