May 5, 2010 / 4:42 PM / 10 years ago

Colombia's Mockus aims to build on Uribe success

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s Antanas Mockus says as president, he would build on President Alvaro Uribe’s success against the country’s rebel groups, and work to boost education and attack corruption to improve the investment climate.

Mockus, a two-time mayor in the capital, Bogota, leads in most polls for the May 30 presidential elections with a promise of continuity as well as cleaner government and attention to economic needs that worry Colombians more than from the country’s guerrilla conflict.

“My theory is to build on what has been built and correct whatever needs to be corrected on the way. My strength in the mayor’s office was not taking things apart,” Mockus said at the Reuters Latin America Investment Summit.

“If Colombia corrects its problem with corruption, then I am sure it can attract a lot of what I call clean capital, capital that plays fairly,” he said.

Known as much for his tight fiscal management as his sometimes offbeat philosophical style, Mockus has surged in the polls to challenge Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former defense minister, who is credited with successes against rebels.

In a poll last month, Mockus was favored by 38 percent of voters compared with 29 percent for Santos, a rise analysts credited to Mockus’ clean government campaign and to scandals over corruption and rights abuses that hit Uribe’s government and have rubbed off on Santos.

Neither Mockus nor Santos currently has enough support to avoid a second round run-off in June. Both candidates are broadly expected to maintain the continuity investors appreciate in Uribe’s tough security and pro-business approach.

Speaking at his two-story home in a middle-class Bogota neighborhood, Mockus acknowledged Uribe’s security campaign, which has battered leftist FARC guerrillas and driven down kidnappings, bombings and massacres from the long conflict.

But Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, said Colombia was ready for a change after eight years of Uribe government that while marked by blows to armed groups, also saw probes into rights abuses, lawmakers tied to militia gangs, and illegal wiretapping of opposition figures by state spies.

Polls show Colombians are now more concerned with unemployment, education and health care than with the lingering threat posed by guerrillas from the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

“Clearly we have come to a stage where people are asking, ‘And now what?’” Mockus said, sporting his trademark Amish-style beard with a pinstripe suit and a green tie.

NEITHER LEFT OR RIGHT

In a sign of concern over Mockus’ poll rise, Santos this week sought to jump-start his campaign, reshuffling his team to inject life into his run. But he was forced to defend his hiring of a Venezuelan expert who has helped his party before.

Mockus’ climb in the polls came just as he announced he was joining forces with well-known former Medellin mayor, Sergio Fajardo, who is running as his vice presidential candidate.

Mockus also announced he has the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.

His campaign has been widely driven by young supporters who have used social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter to promote his bid backed by the Green Party, a new political movement with little influence in Colombia’s Congress.

A former university rector, Mockus once pulled down his pants to shock students into listening to him. As mayor he donned a cape as a superhero and used mimes to mock residents in a campaign of civic education in once chaotic Bogota.

Education is still a key part of his platform — he says it is essential to breaking from cycles of corruption to making Colombians rethink the culture of tolerating drug-trafficking in the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer.

Mockus, who punctuates conversation with anecdotes and long pauses pondering his answers, said he himself is difficult to pigeon-hole. His time as mayor was marked by successful private investment, he said as well as programs considered by some to be left-wing.

“I believe in the market, but I believe in the Constitution and the constitutional court,” he said in his home’s modest front-room where an eclectic mix of books lined the walls.

“I have resolved many discussions saying ‘Let’s see what the Constitution says.’”

How to manage tricky bilateral ties with Venezuela has become a key issue in the election race after the dispute slashed Colombian exports to its neighbor and stirred up tensions in the northern Andes region where Colombia is a staunch U.S. ally.

Asked about relations with Venezuela, Mockus said he would handle the neighboring government with “prudence and respect,” as the two Andean countries are locked in a diplomatic dispute.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of the United States, has slammed Colombia’s plan to allow U.S. troops more access to its military bases in an extension of cooperation in the fight against guerrillas and cocaine traffickers.

“With Venezuela, despite the reasons to be pessimistic, one has to play to card of cooperation, of trust,” he said. “Later we can see how it works out.”

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