Will Colombia Elect The World's First Green President?


In 2001 former Colombian Green leader, Ingrid Betancourt gave a rousing speech at the Global Greens Conference in Canberra.

This year, the Colombian Green Party may deliver on Betancourt’s vision with its candidate, Dr Antanas Mockus, in with a real chance of becoming the world’s first Green head of state in Colombia’s 30 May presidential elections. Poll results released on Monday show Mockus as the favoured candidate.

In late February 2010, outgoing President Alvaro Uribe’s attempt to alter the constitution once again in order to run for president a third time was rejected by the constitutional court. The almost certain prospect of another Uribe victory gave way to a more wide open race. Uribe’s party, the party of the "U", preselected former defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, to run for president.

Initially, Santos was tipped to win the election on the back of Uribe’s high popularity but his hold on the polls has since weakened. Uribe’s government made many Colombians feel more secure — but in the process, he trampled all over the constitution and spied on judges, rival politicians and journalists. Relations with neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador have deteriorated as a result of actions such as the bombing of Ecuador’s sovereign territory. The incumbent government has maintained strong links to murderous paramilitary groups and has reportedly bought votes.

Uribe has also been held responsible for the "false positives" disgrace. Uribe introduced a rewards policy whereby military personnel were rewarded with cash, extra leave, and overseas holidays for the number of "guerrilla" kills they achieved. More than 2000 young civilians were murdered and presented as battlefield casualties, under the watch of the then defence minister Santos.

It was in this toxic political environment that the Colombian Green Party came into being. Mockus’s meteoric rise in the polls is all the more noteworthy given that the party was officially formed only in October 2009 when three popular former political rivals and mayors of Bogota — Antanas Mockus, Enrique Penalosa and Lucho Garzon — joined forces with the original Green Party of Colombia.

Just a month ago Mockus was polling at 8 per cent as preferred presidential candidate. His support had grown to 22 per cent by 8 April. On 14 April 29 per cent of voters surveyed said they would vote for Mockus in the presidential elections to Santos’s 36 per cent.

Monday’s poll (Spanish) had him as the preferred candidate for President with 38 per cent of the vote to Santos’s 29 per cent. In a second round runoff between the two leading candidates Mockus polled 50 per cent to Santos’s 37 per cent, with the remainder undecided or informal.

So who is Antanas Mockus?

The former mayor of Bogota is well known to Colombians. He first came to national attention in 1994 after his unconventional response to student protests while head of the Colombian National University. Faced with an auditorium full of angry, rioting students, Mockus dropped his pants and mooned the auditorium. In his own words, he was connecting "two extremes, extreme contempt and extreme submission". Mockus became an instant phenomenon and ran for mayor as an independent against his now ally, Enrique Penalosa. Mockus was swept to power on an honest, creative and anti-politics platform.

During Mockus’s two terms as mayor — which were separated by Penalosa’s term — he implemented a number of innovative policies aimed at fighting corruption, reducing violence, educating the people, and inspiring a "citizen’s culture".

He sacked the corrupt traffic police and replaced them with street mimes that instead of fining traffic offenders mocked them on the grounds that people respond better to embarrassment than to fines. Some former traffic police took up Mockus’s offer to retrain as street mimes.

To encourage reduced water consumption he appeared on television showering and turned off the taps while he soaped — and water consumption fell 40 per cent. He organised women’s only nights out, in which the men were expected to stay home and look after the kids.

Mockus prioritised peaceful methods of reducing violence and homicide rates (pdf) in Bogota declined from 80 per 100,000 people in 1995 to 24 per 100,000 by 2004.

The prison population was educated about non-violent crime — that while a stolen car can be replaced, death is irreversible. Abuse victims were educated to express their anger by attacking a balloon representing their attacker. When Bogota was facing threats from violent groups, Mockus encouraged peaceful resistance by wearing a white vest with a heart on it and literally tying his hands to illustrate that he was resisting pressure for violent retribution.

In his second term, he further developed Penalosa’s green urbanism initiatives that physically transformed large areas of Bogota. Initiatives included El Transmilenio (a bus rapid transit system that carries more passengers per hour than many rail networks, at a fraction of the cost), new parks and public spaces were created, trees planted and a 300 kilometre network of safe cycle paths, separated from motorists and pedestrians, was constructed (at the time, the largest cycle network of any city in the world).

Penalosa served his term as mayor between Mockus’s first and second terms, and Lucho Garzon followed him in 2004. The formidable combination of the three mayors was strengthened on 5 April when they entered into a union with Dr Sergio Fajardo, who is running as the Green vice presidential candidate. Fajardo is a former mayor of Colombia’s second largest city, Medellin, and has a strong record on public transport and education.

There are a number of reasons for the rapid rise of Mockus and the Colombian Greens. One is, of course, the personal popularity of the party leaders. They each represent a transformation of Colombia. Voters believe that Mockus’s team can change Colombia like they changed Bogota and Medellin.

Secondly, the Colombian Greens have succeeded in shifting the dialogue of the campaign away from Uribe’s achievements and onto his failures by focusing on legality, corruption, transparency and education.

More than anything, however, younger Colombians and students are driving this incredible campaign — and they’re doing so online (Spanish). Social networking in Colombia has become a green wave that Mockus, inspired by Obama, is hoping to ride to the presidency.

In what might have been a major setback, when Mockus announced earlier this month that he is in the initial stages of Parkinson’s disease, it did not even register negatively among voters. Instead he jumped 10 per cent in the next poll. In a Catholic country like Colombia, some commentators have dismissed the diagnosis, noting that Pope John Paul II had Parkinson’s disease for years, while others highlighted it as another example of Mockus’s honest leadership and exhorted all candidates to be equally open about their health.

With Mockus in with a chance, Uribe unconstitutionally entered the debate and claimed that a Mockus government would be a step backwards for the security of the country. Mockus’s campaign responded soon after by posting a video on YouTube (Spanish) of a speech Uribe gave in 2003 at a ceremony decorating Mockus with the star of the police medal in honour of his creative and peaceful methods to improve security in Bogota while mayor.

Colombia’s neighbours don’t agree with Uribe either. Hugo Chavez has stated (Spanish) that a Santos presidency could lead to war between Venezuela and Colombia. And Ecuador has requested (Spanish) that Santos be extradited to face charges for the bombing of its territory.

Eight years ago Uribe was a symbol of security in Colombia after peace processes broke down. Mockus is now a symbol of legality after the rule of a government that made many feel safer — but which levied a heavy ethical price in the process

It remains to be seen whether Colombians will elect the world’s first Green head of state on 30 May but in Australia, the birthplace of the Green movement, the rise of Antanas Mockus will be watched closely. If Mockus is elected, it will give a huge boost to the Australian Greens’ morale in the lead up to this year’s Federal election.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.