Andres Oppenheimer

Is Antanas Mockus better for Colombia -- or Finland?

Colombia's opposition candidate, Antanas Mockus, who according to the latest polls has the best chance of becoming his country's next president, says he will make education, science and technology his government's top priorities.

Critics say he would be a great president -- but of Finland, not Colombia.

Before we get into what Mockus told me in an extended interview about whether or not his plans are unrealistic for a war-torn country like Colombia, let's take a quick look at his chances of winning the presidency in Sunday's elections.

According to the most recent polls, he will end up slightly behind government-backed candidate Juan Manuel Santos, who most recently served as President Alvaro Uribe's defense minister.

But none of the candidates is expected to reach the majority vote needed to win a first-round victory, and the polls show Mockus would win the June 20 run-off vote because supporters of other opposition candidates will rally behind him.

Mockus is a mathematics professor, philosopher and former president of the National University of Colombia as well as a two-term mayor of Bogotá. His Green Party candidacy has risen meteorically in recent months, mostly because he enjoys widespread support among young voters and has become a phenomenon on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.


Mockus' reputation for honesty and his eccentricities -- he once dropped his pants in public as a response to hecklers during a university speech, and got married in a circus -- have made him a long-running media star.

When I asked Mockus whether his focus on education would not make him a more suitable president for a peaceful country like Finland, he laughed. Citing his successful campaigns for better street manners and good citizenship while he was mayor of Bogotá, he told me that "on the contrary, I'm the most-suited candidate for Colombia's needs. Both my theoretical background and experience are very much needed here.

"In Finland, the rule of law is so strong, and there is such a harmony between ethics, culture and law, that what I'm proposing is redundant," he explained. "For them, following the laws is the normal thing to do. . . . In Colombia, it is THE problem. The problem in Colombia is not only the FARC [Marxist guerrillas]. The problem is the culture of illegality, and the tolerance of illegality, and the space that has been occupied by drug traffickers within that culture of tolerance."

Mockus told me that running mate Sergio Fajardo -- a former mayor of Medellín -- would serve both as vice president and education minister in his government. That would make him a sort of first among equals in his Cabinet. Mockus also said his government would allocate 15 percent of the country's oil export income for education.

On foreign policy issues, Mockus said he would seek to lower the level of confrontation with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

In what may have been evidence of a lack of familiarity with foreign affairs, or a slip of the tongue, Mockus said that it wouldn't be proper for him "to start criticizing Venezuela's relations with Iraq, just as it wouldn't be proper for him [Ch´vez] to question our ties with the United States."

When I asked him whether he was referring to Venezuela's ties with Iran, he corrected himself and said, "Yes, with Iran."

My opinion: I'm not as convinced, as the polls suggest, that Mockus would win a second-round election. After Sunday's first-round, he faces three big problems.

First, rival Santos will most likely start a negative campaign, telling Colombians they will risk losing most of the security gains of recent years -- including an 85 percent drop in kidnappings -- if Colombia departs from its current policies. Second, highly popular outgoing President Alvaro Uribe will step up his rhetoric in support of Santos, because he would have the most to lose under a Mockus presidency.


Third, and perhaps most important, Mockus doesn't have his government-backed rival's political apparatus to bring out the vote and count the ballots on election day.

If Mockus still pulls it off, and Facebook and Twitter turn out to be more effective than political parties, I don't think he would be a bad president. Both Santos and he are highly qualified for the job. Foreign policy is obviously not Mockus' strong point, but having an education-obsessed president would not be a tragedy for Colombia either.