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Mimes, Sunflowers, and Good Governance: An Examination of the Political Philosophy, Pedagogic Policies, and Campaign Strategy of Antanas Mockus Through the Lens of Colombian Electoral Politics

By Cory Siskind
Undergraduate Journal of International Affairs, December 1, 2010


Many people have heard of Antanas Mockus. Inside of Colombia, he is either a superstar or a menace, depending on whom you ask. Outside of Colombia, he is the subject of curiosity, admiration, and shock. Antanas Mockus served as mayor of Bogotá from 1995 to 1997 and again from 2001 to 2003, and is widely known for stunts like picking up litter in a spandex superhero costume, taking a shower in a commercial to promote water conservation, and sending mimes into the streets to direct traffic. However, beyond the theatrics and social experiments, he reduced crime rates, corruption, and resource consumption. He increased public space, transportation, citizens’ rights, and, most notably, respect for the rule of law. In the run up to the 2010 presidential election, he shocked Colombia and the world when his poll numbers briefly surpassed those of Juan Manuel Santos, the chosen successor of Alvaro Uribe, the most popular president in Colombia’s history. The revolutionary campaign strategy of his Partido Verde (Green Party), featuring email, social networks, and flashmobs, was met with great success.  Yet despite his overwhelming popularity as mayor and internationally successful campaign strategy, Mockus lost the presidential race to Juan Manuel Santos by a margin of 40%.

This research paper will examine Colombia’s 2010 presidential election in depth. First, I will discuss traditional electoral politics in Colombia and the placement of Antanas Mockus and the Green Party within that framework. Second, I will explain Mockus’s political philosophy as established in his numerous publications and through academic interpretations. Third, I will discuss his accomplishments as mayor of Bogotá, and the changes that took place in the city. Fourth, I will analyze the 2010 presidential campaign, highlighting how Mockus’s strong points were also his pitfalls. Specifically, I will argue that his honesty, academic background, and break with politics as usual all led him to high poll numbers initially, but as the race wore on, ultimately worked directly against him. I will conclude by discussing the future of the Green Party in Colombia.

Throughout this paper, I will reference the canon of texts written on Colombian electoral politics, the papers and presentations of Antanas Mockus and relevant intellectuals, and academic articles. I will rely on contributions from interviews, specifically with Michael Shifter, the President of the Inter-American Dialogue and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; Ricardo Plata, a businessman and Mockus campaign organizer in Baranquilla; Mónica Pachón, a Professor of Politics at the Universidad de los Andes and Director of Congreso Visible; Juan Camilo Chavez, campaign consultant with Aguayo Publicidad and strategic planner for Mockus; and Darío Restrepo, a fellow-academician and contemporary of Antanas Mockus.


In order to understand the phenomenon of Antanas Mockus and place the Green Party in historical context, it is important to briefly discuss the political history of Colombia. An oligarchic regime for most of its early history, Colombia transitioned into an oligarchic democracy over time. Its main periods of transition can be classified as pseudo-democracy with indirect elections and limited suffrage from 1819 to 1953, a military dictatorship under Gustavo Rojas Pinilla from 1953-1957, and a mix of electoral and liberal democracy challenged by political violence from 1958 to the present.  Throughout the later part of the country’s history, two characteristics have defined Colombia’s political landscape: clientelism and democracy limited by political violence.


As was the case with many Latin American countries, clientelism played an important role in governing Colombia from the time of Spanish rule. Formerly called caudillismo, it has evolved into a subtle form of modern political patronage. Although definitions of clientelism vary, Robert Clark defines it as a system in which members of lesser socio-economic status are “under the jurisdiction or control of local patrons who defend the interests of their clients and receive deference and respect (as well as more material rewards) from them in return.”  Scott Mainwaring defines clientelistic relationships by four main characteristics: their unequal character, their uneven reciprocity, their noninstitutionalized nature, and their face-to-face character. Clientelism served as a way for the Colombian elite to maintain a hold on power. John D. Martz’s explains, “the patrimonial state in Colombia evolved as a highly malleable system committed to the maintenance of a responsive but ultimately personalistic public order, one dedicated most fundamentally to its own preservation and the unity of the state.”  With the onset of modernization, industrialization, and the expansion of the state, clientelism was reformed into a system of corporate clientelism, or the replacement of traditional individual patrons with groups or corporate entities.  Modern clientelism often manifests itself through bribes, handouts, and political favors. The dynamic, asymmetrical quid-pro-quo of clientelism has continued to play an important role in Colombian politics.

Political Violence and the Degradation of Democracy

Periods of civil war, antagonist political dialogue, and violent elections greatly hindered Colombia’s democracy. It underwent eight civil wars during the nineteenth century alone. Although it has some of the hemisphere’s longest-standing democratic institutions and a tradition of resistance to authoritarian rule, it also has perhaps the most violent history in the hemisphere.  The murder of Liberal Jorge Eliécer Gaitán incited the riots known as El Bogotazo, launching La Violencia (“the Violence”) from 1948 to 1958 between the Liberal and Conservative parties.

The dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla from 1953-1957 was followed by a pacted transition, in which power was transferred from the governing elite through a series of agreements.  Through the 1956 Pacto de Benidorm and the 1957 Pacto de Sitges, power shifted from the dictator to a new government. The dyadic power-sharing agreement known as the Frente Nacional  (“National Front”) was exclusionary in nature, banning political parties other than the Liberal and Conservative from competing for power. During La Violencia and the Frente Nacional, Colombians were overwhelmingly political and polarized. However, throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century, the violence among the Colombian government, leftist guerillas, and paramilitary forces ensured that Colombia featured some of the highest rates of voter abstention in the hemisphere. In recent years, rarely have more than 45% of voters participated in an election.

According to Steven Taylor’s interpretation of Larry Diamond’s ten criteria for liberal democracy, Colombia today is defined as a democracy. However, only two of the criteria are fully present: control of the state by elected officials and constrained executive power. Although severely limited by violence, Colombia still features uncertain electoral outcomes, unrepressed minority groups, free association and group formation, freedom of information, basic democratic liberties, equal rights under the law, and an independent judiciary. Nonetheless, the ability of the state to protect citizens from violence is absent in large portions of the country. 

The Adoption of a New Constitution and the Expansion of Political Parties

Colombia also has a long history of pursuing institutional change in the face of political problems. Previous to its adoption of a new Constitution in 1991, Colombia had the second longest-standing Constitution in the hemisphere (since 1886) after the United States. Nonetheless, the Constitution faced many reforms and modifications. Directly after the Desmonte, or dismantling, of the Frente Nacional, the two-party political system remained largely intact.

After the advent of the 1991 Constitution and the decline of bipardismo, or rule by two parties though not necessarily featuring cooperation, the number and power of alternative political parties grew. The transition of Colombia’s political parties looked something like the following: a strong two-party system (1974-1990), increasing atomization (1991-2002), and seeming consolidation in a multiparty system (2006-present).  The Liberal Party retained much of its support, while the Conservative party gained minority status as many independent movements splintered off. After its emergence in 1990, the Alianza Democrática Movimiento del 19 de Abril garnered substantial support, which it quickly lost because of its fragmentation. Many other strong third party candidates entered the political landscape. Álvaro Uribe, a liberal who defected from his party, ran as an independent in 2002. Uribe became wildly popular, and the Partido Social de Unidad Nacional, or el Partido de la U, formed around him. In 2010 President Uribe endorsed Juan Manuel Santos. Several parties rose to challenge Santos, such as the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties, as well as the Polo Democrático Alternativo, Cambio Radical, and of course, Antanas Mockus’s Partido Verde. 

How to Place Antanas Mockus and el Partido Verde in Historical Context

In many ways Antanas Mockus represents a major parting with political tradition in Colombia. Although he was not the first to do so, Mockus made a dramatic statement with his refusal to engage in patronage and clientelism. Mockus did not establish pre-election alliances, as is the common practice. The campaign’s use of social media to interact with voters also distinguished Mockus’s from traditional campaigns. His Green Party is an example of the new structure of party politics in Colombia. Leaving the traditional dyadic system behind, the runoff to the 2010 presidential election featured two candidates, neither of whom belonged to the Liberal or Conservative party. Mockus’s candidacy also inspired an unprecedented number of youth voters to participate in the election, turning back the tide of Colombia’s voter apathy.


A mathematician and philosopher, Antanas Mockus is first and foremost an educator and he approached his time as mayor of Bogotá as such. He entered office during a troubled time, and understood that Bogotá’s situation was unique, requiring carefully crafted policies that reflected the history, tradition, and personality of the city. According to Professor Darío Restrepo Mockus believed, “laws are very personal to a people. The same law you impose in the United States will have a completely different effect in Russia, China, or Haiti, because every group of people has its own code of morals and individual values.”  Mockus thus moved forward with a strategy to target Bogotá’s unique ills.

Mockus also recognized that there was a problem with societal norms. “The Colombian people are entrepreneurial and resourceful. They are very creative and adaptable. If the people are not morally in the right place, these positives can be misused.”  The misuse of these qualities caused what Restrepo explains as a short-cut culture:

“Mockus said, ‘we have a problem. We have a shortcut culture. We use shortcuts to bypass morality, culture and society.’ Many of the people of Bogotá believed the end justified the means. They looked at each other’s actions and thereby justified their own…the result of this culture was uncertainty, violence, distrust in the system, and corruption. This misalignment of culture and morality presented huge policy obstacles.” 

Mockus sought out to reform Bogotá with strategic, pedagogic policies that would teach Bogotanos how to behave like good citizens.

Personal Responsibility and Compliance with Laws

A fundamental cornerstone of Mockus’s belief system is that individuals must make the choice to improve their surroundings. Restrepo explains, “Mockus believed that every person can distinguish between good and bad. It is possible for individuals to have different interpretations of what each one means, but every person knows when they are doing good or bad.”  The idea of personal responsibility and accountability runs throughout Mockus’s canon of essays and is reflected in policies. Mockus conducted extensive research on the factors behind compliance and noncompliance with laws. He explained the contextual factors surrounding laws that encourage compliance can be broken down into five categories: 1) the law itself and how easy it is to understand and comply; 2) anomie, or the presence or lack thereof of social norms; 3) aversion or acceptance of norms; 4) tolerance and pluralism in society and; 5) acceptance of negligence.  He also argued that humans have both positive and negative legal, auto-regulatory, and mutual-regulatory influences that drive behavior. Positively, citizens may follow laws because of respect for the law, moral obligation, or concern for their reputation in society. Negatively, citizens’ behavior may be guided by a fear of legal sanctions, guilt, or social rejection.  Mockus approached crafting policy not just from a political standpoint but also with an in-depth understanding of sociology and human psychology.

Divorce of Law, Morality, and Culture

The root of Bogotá’s problems, Mockus argued repeatedly, was a divorce of law, morality and culture among the city’s inhabitants. He explained the dangers of the “lack of congruency between cultural behavior, and moral and judicial regulators. This incongruence expresses itself as violence, delinquency, corruption, illegitimating institutions, and a crisis or weakening of individuals’ morals.”  The idea is that there can be exaggerated cleavages between what the law tells its citizens, what the citizens believe is morally correct, and what is culturally acceptable. For example, the law tells a citizen in Bogotá to wait at a red light until it turns green. However, that person sees other drivers continuing through the red light, and realizes it is culturally acceptable to do so. The citizen begins to see this basic traffic violation as morally acceptable because he or she does not connect the rule to its purpose and just sees the end result. This divorce of different channels of directing citizens’ behavior creates havoc in a city. Mockus approached crafting policy from the belief that if citizens merely look to the actions of others and do not consider the intended purpose of a law, they would not respect it nor comply with it.

Coexistence and Citizen Culture

Although he did not originally coin the term, Mockus became widely known for promoting convivencia (coexistence) as mayor. He defined the idea of convivencia in a city as, “striving to live together amongst different peoples without the risk or violence and with the expectation of viewing differences as necessary for growth.”  Mockus believed that a human being that does not form relations with others is not a human being, and therefore convivencia is intrinsically desirable.  “Convivencia is more than just simple, tranquil, and pacifistic existence. It is conjoined construction, strong relations, mutual support, reciprocal utilization of skills, and mutual enrichment. In sum, it is the fertility of diversity.”  Mockus believed that sense of community and mutual destiny was entirely absent in Bogotá, and he worked to foster it. 

Another important aspect of Mockus’ ideological platform was encouraging cultura ciudadana (“citizen culture”). Mockus believed in enforcing policies that mandate citizen behaviors (regulation), but he also strongly believed that when citizens understand and respect the law, they enforce their own good behavior (auto-regulation). There is also an interpersonal aspect to cultura ciudadana. Mockus desired that citizens help support the rule of law. Beyond creating rules, he wanted to create a culture that encouraged all citizens to be watchdogs of each other’s behavior. This would not only create a more lawful city, but a city in which citizens believed they were actively contributing to the betterment of their surroundings.

The Role of Government and the Individual in Changing Behavior

 Mockus believed the responsibility for a better Bogotá did not fall entirely on the shoulders of the city government. Even though his ideological platform was ambitious, Mockus did not believe the state was the answer. According to Darío Restrepo, “Mockus wasn’t a ‘statist.’ The state was not the solution. When he spoke of ‘the collective’ he was not speaking of the state. He distrusted the syndicates and bureaucracies and was therefore not in favor of validating or concentrating them.”  Mockus believed the shared duty among the citizens of Bogotá was to act: “for Mockus, it was absolutely necessary that the leaders and the people take responsibility. The state was a problem but it was not just the state that was guilty.”  Therefore, Mockus implemented series of pedagogic policies, discussed in the following section, which sought to challenge the citizens of Bogotá to reflect upon their own actions and how their role in city life impacted the wellbeing of others.

The Legacy of Mockus’s Ideas

 Mockus’s philosophy spurred a number of intellectuals and politicians to expound upon his ideas after his time in office. Several authors, such as Efraín Sánchez and Victor Manuel Rodríguez, wrote about the power of collective action regarding citizen culture. Thinkers like Luis Fernando Martínez discussed the influence of fear on citizens’ wellbeing in Bogotá, and others explored how to advocate “love” for Bogotá. Rocio Londoño, Otty Patiño, Paul Bromberg, and Tatiana Gomescásseres all engaged in a discussion of the nature of the cultura ciudadana movement and its future in Colombia. Many educators and institutions looked closely at his pedagogic approach to governing, and thus restructured their teaching format.

Mockus’s philosophies had a major impact on intellectuals inside and outside of Colombia. His ideas were practical and accessible, yet somehow stunning in their uniqueness. They resonated with the citizens of Bogotá who were tired of crime, corruption, violence, disrespect, and politics as usual. The following section will discuss how a zealous and determined Mockus put these ideas into action during his time as mayor of Bogotá.


The city of Bogotá saw hard-fought developments from 1995 to 2003. When Antanas Mockus left his post as President of the National University of Colombia and ran for mayor of Bogotá in 1995, he had no political experience. As a creative eccentric, he saw an opportunity to turn the city into a classroom. His policies were not just directed at reforming the city, but at changing the mentality of its citizens. Professor Jane Mansbidge summarized his general approach: “The most effective campaigns combine material incentives with normative change and participatory stakeholding.”  In addition to individual incentives and communal rewards, the effectiveness of his policies was rooted in their shock value, symbolism, and pedagogy.

Mockus was not the only person responsible for changing Bogotá. Other leaders in Bogotá before, during, and after his mayoral tenure also contributed to the positive development of the city. Restrepo argues that, although he may have dressed up as a superhero, “Mockus is no superman. The mayor before him [Jaime Castro] was also a reformist who set the stage. He made the government more concentrated and efficient.”  Paul Bromberg and Enrique Peñalosa served as mayors of Bogotá between Mockus’s two terms, from 1996 to 2000, and Luis Eduardo “Lucho” Garzón held the office from 2004 to 2007. Bromber, Peñalosa, and Garzón all developed their own distinctive policies that incorporated Mockus’s philosophy and expounded upon it. Additionally, politicians outside of Bogotá implemented citywide reforms in their own right. Another mayor, Sergio Fajardo dramatically improved Medellín, catching national attention and causing Mockus to select Fajardo as his running mate and vice presidential candidate. Nonetheless, “everything Mockus did in office was entirely Mockus.”

Recognizing the Importance of Life

Throughout his career, Mockus repeated, la vida es sagrada (“life is sacred”). Therefore, one of Mockus’s first priorities in office was tackling the soaring crime rates and poor citizen safety. In response to a question regarding which of Mockus’s policies had the greatest impact, Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue states, “some of Mockus’s innovative and resourceful efforts to reduce street crime in Bogotá were quite effective. He identified key risk factors and methodically went about changing these to increase citizen security.”  One such policy was the ley zanahoria or the “Carrot Law.” A Colombian colloquialism, a “zanahoria” is a person who does not party or get into trouble. The law mandated that bars and clubs in Bogotá close at one o’clock in the morning. Although faced with vigorous protests from the youth of the city, the law got people off the streets at night when most of the crime was occurring and reduced the number of drunk driving accidents. In the face of protestors, Mockus said, “a thousand nights of partying, do not justify the death of a single human being.”  Before the ley zanahoria, an average of 38 people died in Bogotá during the weekend (with 16 from traffic accidents), but afterward the number was lowered to 14 (with traffic accidents lowered to just four).


Another important initiative in reducing the crime rate in Bogotá was the disarmament of the city. Caballero explains:

“Voluntary disarmament days were held in December 1996 and again in 2003. Though less than 1% of the firearms in the city were given up, homicides fell by 26%, thanks in part to the attention given to the program by the media. The percentage of people who think that it is better to have firearms in order to protect themselves fell from 24.8% in 2001 to 10.4% in 2003.” 

Following his mantra of “la vida es sagrada”, Mockus, and the mayors who followed his lead between his two terms, obtained results. In the eight-year period from 1995 to 2003, homicides in Bogotá dropped from 80 people per every 100,000 to just 22, a 73% decrease. 

Battling Corruption

Mockus also tackled the culture of political corruption. Upon entering office, he faced an elaborate political network that dictated favors and alliances as a means of operation. However, Mockus was elected the first independent mayor in Bogotá’s history, and he shocked the established political elite by stating, “the only alliance I can possibly have is with the people.”  Regarding business as usual, he continued, “I stopped that, and some called me an anti-patronage fundamentalist.” Apparently, when he presented one council member with a text explaining his goals, the man at first smiled, but soon after resigned.  Despite the entrenched system, his independence allowed him to fill his administration with the brightest academics the country had to offer.

He battled corruption outside higher political office as well, disbanding the notoriously corrupt traffic police and firing 3,200 officers. He offered to hire them back if they underwent retraining, and several hundred took him up on his offer. His overhaul of the police force, according to Mónica Pachón, a political science professor at the Universidad de los Andes, was instrumental in setting the stage for all of his other reforms: “Mockus’s pedagogic policies only worked as a complement to his focus on security and investing so much in revitalizing the police force and removing the corruption.”  Mockus’s no-nonsense attitude toward political favors, alliances, and corruption was a wake up call to the governing elite, as well as the police force. His transparency and honesty, combined with his focus on security, paved the way for his future effectiveness in other endeavors.

Reforming Drivers

Mockus sought to completely change the way drivers behaved in Bogotá. Drivers are required to make sacrifices, such as waiting for a pedestrian to cross the street or yielding to another driver. Restrepo explains, “we didn’t have a culture that allowed us to have collective rules that required some sacrifice from the individual.”  Therefore, traffic laws were taken as suggestions, and driving in the city was tantamount to chaos. Beyond the ley zanahoria that helped get drunk drivers off the street, Mockus moved to draw citizens’ attention to their own actions. He trained hundreds of mimes to go into the streets and silently act out good driving behavior and publicly ridicule bad drivers. The press and many in the general public were dumbfounded by the absurdity of the mimes, but it got their attention. Mockus also distributed 350,000 “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” cards to drivers to rate each other’s behavior on the road. He formed the Caballeros de la Cebra, or Knights of Crosswalk, composed of a group taxi drivers who the public nominated based on their kindness and honesty. Mockus, consulted with the Caballeros to better the taxi culture in Bogotá. Another powerful policy Mockus implemented was painting black stars on the street where pedestrians had been killed from a traffic accident. This drew the citizens’ attention to just how many lives were lost because of failure to follow rules. All of these policies contributed to a reduction of traffic fatalities from 1,300 per year to 600. 

Public Space, Transportation, and Infrastructure

The Mockus administration’s effort to improve public space and infrastructure had a major impact on the city. The network of libraries, parks, and plazas within the city’s limits grew rapidly. Restrepo describes public transportation pre-Mockus: “the companies that owned bus lines were very big and powerful in Bogotá, and the bus drivers were paid for every person they picked up. Therefore, bus drivers would race each other to the bus stops to pick up more people, thus causing traffic accidents and difficult driving conditions.”  An efficient, streamlined, subway-like system of buses, known as the Transmilenio, cleaned the streets of hundreds of dueling, privately owned buses. Although it was implemented under Mayor Peñalosa, Mockus’s successor and predecessor to his second term, Mockus was instrumental in its conceptualization and continued the system’s implementation during his second term. More bike lanes and the closing of streets on certain days increased the number of bikers and decreased the number of cars on the road. A system called pico y placa, in which cars with license plates that ended in even or odd were restricted to driving on certain days, decreased the congestion of the city’s streets.

The movement to increase public space and transportation under Mockus and Peñalosa was controversial and did not go smoothly. Both Mockus and Peñalosa focused on clearing out the slums to make way for public space that would change the face of Bogotá. Possibly the hardest task was Peñalosa’s renovation of El Cartucho. One of Bogotá’s worst neighborhoods and located just next to the city center, El Cartucho was home to thousands of the city’s poorest residents, all of whom had to be relocated. Protestors took to the streets with fireworks and bombs. Peñalosa also turned Bogotá’s most exclusive country club into a public park, a difficult struggle against the city’s elites. Battling the powerful private bus companies with the Transmilenio led to debilitating strikes. However, the rapid and thorough developments modernized Bogotá, improving urban life for millions of residents.

Water Conservation

Water conservation was also high on Mockus’s agenda. “In 2003, the Mockus administration provided 1,235,000 homes with sewage service and 1,316,500 with water services. The city's provision of drinking water rose from 78.7% of homes in 1993 to 100% in 2003. The sewage service rose from 70.8% of homes in 1993 to 94.9% in 2003.”  Landlocked Bogotá faced extreme water shortages. Mockus set out to reduce water consumption through a highly visible campaign of conservation. Mockus famously showered on national television in a commercial to promote shorter showers. He removed limitations on water use, hoping that people would regulate their own consumption through collective action. On the contrary, water usage rose sharply as the citizens of Bogotá hoarded water in their homes. Mockus took action with the support of a television crew. Restrepo recalls:

“He actually went around to different house in Bogotá and knocked on doors saying, ‘Señora, this month you used 10% more water than last. Don’t you know that there is a grave problem with people not conserving water? If everyone escalates their water consumption as you have done, there will be even less water.’ And that woman would be full of embarrassment and shame. Guilt over one’s negative actions. A sense of personal responsibility. That is what Mockus did.”  

After the initial spike and retaliation campaign, numbers dropped down far below the original consumption levels.

Voluntary Taxes

Perhaps the most surprising success of the Mockus era was the implementation of voluntary taxes. Many Bogotanos evaded paying taxes. “Colombians pay taxes in the United States, throughout the rest of world, but not here, because they know they can get away with it. It’s a simple cost benefit analysis,”  says Pachón. However, Mockus asked the people directly to pay an extra 10% in voluntary taxes, and astonishingly 63,000 people complied.  Compliance with voluntary taxes marked the success of the Mockus model of citizen culture. Despite the potentially staggering cost of implementing infrastructure, public transportation, public space, increased security, education programs, social experiments, and expanded access to water, Mockus spent dramatically less than previous administrations. In 2002, with the tax dollars saved from the administration not paying handouts, the city collected more than three times the revenues it gathered in 1990. 

Mockus’s Policies in Conjunction

Mockus oversaw a revolution in Bogotá. He is now known for lowering the homicide rate, setting up disarmament initiatives, battling a tradition of political corruption, reforming driving culture, decongesting the roads, rejuvenating the police force, promoting public space and transportation, lowering water consumption, and implementing a system of voluntary taxes. He had many other successes in office, such as combating domestic violence, promoting education, and community-monitored security. He also faced many failures and disappointments. However, with all the successful policies that focused on changing the way Bogtanos see each other and their city during his years in office, Bogotá changed so fundamentally that to many, it became an entirely different city.

Looking towards the 2010 presidential election, the next section will briefly discuss the electoral political structure of Colombia and conclude by examining Mockus’s position therein.


 In April 2010, with the presidential election looming in May, Semana published a poll conducted by Ipsos Napoleon Franco for a coalition of the country’s largest news sources that shocked Colombia and the world. In just two weeks, Mockus’s poll numbers had shot up from 20% to 38% support, propelling him nine points ahead of the next closest competitor (Juan Manuel Santos, the current President of Colombia).  The poll also reported that Mockus had 58% support in the capital city over Santos’s 37%. The results sent a shock wave through the country and Colombians began to ask themselves, “Could we really elect Antanas Mockus to be President of Colombia?”

After reviewing the appealing philosophy of Antanas Mockus, the overwhelming success of his policies and his popularity as mayor, and the norms of traditional electoral politics in Bogotá, the question remains, “Why did Antanas Mockus lose the presidential election to Juan Manuel Santos at a stunning 40% margin (28% to 69%)?” According to Ricardo Plata, a businessman and campaign organizer for Mockus, he lost the election because:

“He was an iconoclast. He was so completely original that he could not be in-tune with the people. His stance was visionary and personal. He ran for president three times, and he believed in his cause. He managed to change the culture of an 8 million-person town on the verge of collapse. But his stance was so different he couldn’t sell it. He didn’t have what other politicians have: the ability to sell.”
Juan Camilio Chavez, a campaign consultant and strategic planner for Mockus, saw the end of the campaign as a series of gaffs: “With all that momentum, Antanas could have won. At the end of his campaign, he made many mistakes while Santos was being very deliberate.”  Many have theorized on why Mockus lost so dramatically. Perhaps the answer is that the Colombian people realized that the qualities that made Mockus an appealing idea worked directly against him in his bid for the presidency. Specifically, Mockus’s honesty, reputation as an academic, and break with politics as usual all caused the dramatic jump in his poll numbers, but ultimately cost him the election.


Mockus’s honesty and frank style brought him to the spotlight in the 1990s. The anti-politician, he spoke to people directly and gained the trust of his constituents. As his presidential campaign progressed, his popularity and appeal on a personal level was widespread. “He is the kind of person that people fall for politically when they meet him. He is so obviously a good person, and transparent in his intentions.”  Initially, voters were attracted to his honesty, “Antanas does not tell lies. Traditional politicians tell lies, and promise things they can’t accomplish. Antanas is not accustomed to lying. When we would try to prep him for debates, we would say ‘Antanas, your opponent will say this. You have to respond with that.’ He had a hard time with that. He would just say whatever occurred to him in the moment.”  Antanas basked in the glow of his success as mayor of Bogotá. According to Chávez, “the success of the campaign in the first stage was that many of the things we marketed were not political. They were the nonpolitical aspects of his mayoral tenure. We emphasized the increase in the security, visual improvements, and infrastructure.” Mockus’s honesty got him elected twice as mayor of Bogotá, national and international attention, and poll numbers that increased from virtually irrelevant to a real threat to his opposition.

Eventually Mockus paid the price for speaking without a filter. The voters began to see him as unpredictable and a loose cannon. Mockus wanted to talk about the future and thus did not market his past. By May, Santos had Mockus on the defensive, and his honesty started to work against him: “The two biggest problems with Antanas’s campaign were, first, that he did not sell his successes as mayor enough and, second, that he never censored his own speech. He would say things in a debate, and his campaign staff would immediately groan and say, ‘what did he just say?’”  According to Chávez, first, Mockus did not stick to his selling points, “there weren’t extensive criticisms of his time as mayor. Almost everyone recognizes his mayoral tenure as a success... but his campaign couldn’t capitalize on it. With a more aggressive campaign leadership, things would have been closer.”  Second, Mockus floundered in debates.  He fumbled over his words, offending people and frightening voters.

Mockus’s gravest gaffe was stating that he “admired” Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is hugely unpopular in Colombia. He later replaced “admired” with “respected”, but the damage had been done. He also said that he would extradite a Colombian president to face justice in another country. That statement horrified voters at the thought of extraditing President Uribe, who boasted 70% support, to Ecuador to face charges brought against him. Juan Camilo Chávez explains, “he couldn’t defend his ideas strongly, and accordingly in many people’s point of view, he wouldn’t be able to defend Colombia.” Political analyst Camilo Rojas argues, “projecting only the image of honesty did not reflect the real preferences of the Colombian constituency,” which Rojas said was “seeking the image of a leader, a manager, a commander in chief, not just an honest candidate.”  Initially, voters were attracted to Mockus’s honesty, frankness and integrity. However, as the election neared and the reality of Mockus as president set in, the Colombian people realized they were not ready to elect the unpredictable politician.

Academic Nature

Another distinctive quality of Antanas Mockus is his academic nature. His rational, thought-out approach to the city’s problems was entirely unique. “Mockus was a completely different mayor because he behaved like a professor. He was very authentic.”  Throughout his time as mayor and during his campaign, Mockus thought, talked, and acted like a professor. Mockus called for rationality and challenged the people of Bogotá to consider their actions and why they behaved they way they did. He pushed for libraries and better schools. Mockus also managed to navigate away from the negative stereotypes often associated with academics in order to be seen as one of the people, “even though his parents are foreign-born, he studied in France, and speaks four languages, the people never viewed him as an elitist. To them, he was just completely academic.”  With his pedagogic policies and social experiments, Mockus treated Bogotá like a classroom. “Mockus said we ‘need an educator.’ He approached his governing position like he approaches education. He is not messianic or orthodox or the good father who sacrifices for his family. No, he assumed the role of an educator, and he said that if we cooperate we will all win.”   The educator of Bogotá continued his academic approach into his campaign for president.

The world of academics and that of politics are very different. While the educator image appealed widely when Mockus was mayor of Bogotá and at the start of his presidential run, it ended up making Mockus appear to be an overly individualistic, lofty intellectual. Mónica Pachón echoed the thoughts of many, “when you’re a politician, you can’t only talk about ideas.”  On the national stage, Mockus’s calls for rationality and pedagogy made him look weak in the face of candidates who boasted more practical priorities like security and economic growth. While direct communication with citizens may have worked in the city of Bogotá, nationally it seemed like a much more unrealistic goal. Pachón explains:

“He said we will go to the people directly and then to Congress. Here you do not go to the people first. You go right to Congress.” His continued calls for communication and dialogue also seemed impractical to the Colombian people, “Mockus said ‘we are going to argue and counter argue’. Where does he think he is? This is politics. Saying that idea to people is just irresponsible because it will only lead to disappointment. The senate is going to sit and counter argue? Give me a break.”

Voters were initially taken by the professor, but when the image failed to adapt to the national stage, it left them doubtful. 

Professors rarely teach in groups, and accordingly, Mockus lacked the organizational skills to bring together an effective party machine. As the first independent mayor in Bogotá’s history, “much of Antanas’s team was academics, and very few were traditional politicians. There is a huge difference between the two sectors.”  This difference caused great difficulties in building a coalition that was more than merely a collection of individuals. “One of the biggest problems with the Green Party is that Mockus had never been a member of a party. He was completely an individual. Organizing was very difficult for him, and therefore the Green Party lacked structure.”  Towards the end of the presidential campaign, voters realized that it was nearly impossible to identify a clear platform from the Green Party. Many began to view the effort as just an outlet for opportunistic individuals. Pachón argues:

“I do not think there’s a party. It is a communion of good things that happened around certain characters, but it is difficult to describe that group as a united party. We cannot describe any common agenda, not even Mockus could translate the excitement of the people into a serious party. There were a lot of virtuous people around him, and lots of people with excellent experience, Peñalosa being one of them, Farjado being another, but Mockus does not show any administrative experience.” 

Parties are an essential aspect of the political system in Colombia. Mockus’ lofty individualism made him ill fit to organize and lead a party. Without strong party backing, Mockus could not win the election.

Break with Politics as Usual

Mockus is perhaps best known for his break with politics as usual. As mayor his unconventional policies, battle against entrenched corruption, resistance against party reliance, and disregard for convention defined him. During his presidential campaign, he continued breaking norms of political behavior.
Mockus and his team of strategists employed campaign tactics that were unheard of previously in Colombian campaigns. To win the high office, they relied heavily on the Internet and capturing the attention of young people. Strategist Chávez recalls:

“We started with flyers, and then realized the Internet was the way to promote his successes and spread the word… It wasn’t even always our own initiative. People all over the world were asking us, ‘what can we do so that Antanas will win?’ They sent videos around and talked to Colombian communities everywhere. The campaign was completely dependent on the voter participation, especially young people. We utilized Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. We invited people to change the way politicians get elected in Colombia, and people began to send, send, send.” 

Mockus quickly became the most searched for candidate on Google and other search engines.  Because of the campaign’s utilization of the Internet, many once uninterested young people in Colombia began to pay attention. According to the Dialogue’s Michael Shifter, “Mockus’s message and style certainly had an appeal with previously apathetic youth. He deserves enormous credit for arousing considerable interest in a different kind of politics.”  Youth participation and the utilization of the Internet created a hugely successful campaign for Mockus.

The campaign’s focus was on interactive as opposed to static media. Social networks were of crucial importance. Mockus boasted nearly twice the number of fans on Facebook than any other candidate, with 817,682 “likes” to Juan Manuel Santos’s 472,996. Chávez explains:

“The success of social networks even surprised us. The New York Times, CNN, all sorts of international news organizations came to investigate because people were saying that Mockus was the most important politician online. In our largest predictions, we never anticipated how successful these networks would be. It wasn’t all our doing. We just tried to capitalize on what people, mostly young people, were already doing on their own.” 

The campaign also employed the use of “flashmobs” to garner interest and build off the buzz around Mockus to create a sense of community. Chávez details:

“They started off organically, completely organized by the people themselves. People would collect in a designated spot, take off their jackets to reveal Mockus T-shirts, and sit cross-legged on the ground in complete silence for three minutes. Then everyone raised his or her hands, still in silence. People around began to chant ‘Mockus! Mockus! Mockus!’ It was very exciting and had an incredible impact. Then we caught on, and began to organize flashmobs ourselves. It was a moment in which everyone could feel part of a movement, part of the ‘green wave’.” 

The 2010 presidential election brought about the most intense civic participation in Colombia’s history. The feeling of working towards a common goal, and supporting an authentic rebel candidate fostered an infectious excitement. “The biggest success of our campaign was making people feel like they were part of a unique, important movement…Mockus was the politician that every campaign manager wanted to direct, because it was such an exciting challenge.”  By breaking with campaigning as usual and utilizing new tactics, the Mockus campaign was extremely effective at reaching a relatively limited demographic. Shifter argues:

“Mockus certainly surpassed any other candidate in Colombian politics in the use of Facebook, which helped boost his candidacy, especially among the young living in major cities. Such social media are likely to continue to be important in Colombian, and Latin American, elections. Of course, as the final results showed, such techniques can be helpful, but are not enough to insure victory, as Mockus discovered.” 

Although the Mockus campaign was surrounded by an excited fervor and mobilized many previously dispassionate youth, it still failed to win Mockus the presidency for several reasons.

The largest issue was that Mockus’s support was overwhelming limited to young people in urban areas. Only approximately 30% of Colombia’s population is connected to the Internet.  With such a heavy reliance on the Internet and urban gatherings, many voters saw Antanas Mockus as a youthful fad, someone who was not prepared to take on the important office of the executive. Chávez describes the campaign:

“A large majority of the campaign was run by people under 30. It was very well organized internally. If you went to a rally, you would see the vast majority were young people… Sometimes this worked against Antanas. Adults would say that he was a fad. They weren’t connected to the social networks. They didn’t think he was serious.”

Mockus also continued to break the norms of political campaigning by refusing to send out transportation to take supporters to the polls, because he thought it was buying votes. In Colombia, however, it is a commonplace campaign tactic among all parties. This failure to reach out to voters and enable them to get to the polls cost Mockus thousands of votes. What had won the Mockus campaign so much Internet traffic, international press, and excitement among youth voters, ultimately cost Mockus a majority of votes among serious, older, and rural voters.

The Betrayal of Distinctive Characteristics and the Loss of the Election

Antanas Mockus broke the mold in many ways. He was honest at a point when corruption had become the norm, he blended the two normally separate worlds of academics and politics, and he invigorated traditional campaigning by reaching out to voters via interactive social media. All these rebellions excited young voters and created an audible buzz around Antanas Mockus. However, voters also saw him as a loose cannon, lofty intellectual, and a product of youth excitement.


After the June 2010 election, many questions remain. Is the Green Party a united coalition or a collection of opportunistic individuals? Was their relative success due to the charisma of Antanas Mockus or did the party itself pick up and capitalize on new issues important to the Colombian people? And finally, what is the future of the Green Party?

Some argue that the reason Mockus and the Green party saw success in the election cycle of 2010 is because it is a unified coalition of important players who all believe in good governance and anti-corruption. According to Michael Shifter, “the Green Party is surely a collective effort, which explains why it got some traction this past electoral cycle. Mockus won the primary election, but the other former mayors, his colleagues, were also crucial to the Green Party’s rise and will be vital if it to play an effective role in the country’s current political context.”  Ricardo Plata believed that the Green Party label was not easy to give Mockus’s coalition, but that it was indeed a coalition: “It’s hard to label these guys. They are not stereotypical in their points of views.”  If the Green Party is a unified coalition, it is bound to play an important role in future elections.

However, others believe that opportunistic individuals united under the banner of the Green Party without necessarily believing in a common message. Professor Mónica Pachón is even wary of the Green Party name, regarding “this idea of the ‘Green’ Party. They are not environmental or ecological. They just needed a party, and they made it a business transaction. It was completely opportunistic.”  She disagrees that campaign members Peñalosa and Fajardo, who believe “politics is politics” and are “realistas”, have much in common with the ideological Mockus. She claims both, “made a successful campaign of giving people what they want, and they wanted independent politics.”  Put even more bluntly, Pachón believes, “they are not a party. They are followers. They don’t share ideology.”  If the Green Party is in fact politicians in the right place at the right time, it will face an uphill battle maintaining popularity as the country’s agenda changes.

Many are conflicted as to whether the root of the phenomenon was in the Green Party or solely in Mockus himself. Plata summarizes the two sides. On the one hand, “people inside and outside of Colombia wanted to ride the ‘green wave’ and that could not have happened without the legacy of Mockus.”  However, in many ways the Green Party also succeeded at capitalizing on the evolving politics and sentiments of the Colombian people, “Mockus does have the support of many people, but the green wave is really the transfer into the spotlight of the discontent of the growing middle class that corruption shouldn’t be tolerated and that education is the way to succeed in life…The Green Party could have existed without Mockus. Maybe it came up faster because of him. Something like it existed in Fajardo. But it would have happened.”  If the Green Party was a force that grew out of popular sentiment, it is likely to continue to play a definitive role in Colombia politics.

Moving forward, the Green Party’s performance in the 2010 presidential election by no means assured them future success, and they must take several pragmatic steps to remain relevant to Colombian voters. Shifter concludes, “it will take a lot more Mockus, however appealing he might be, to fundamentally change the political culture in Colombia, not to mention Latin America. His impact beyond Colombia has been minimal and in Colombia it will depend on whether he is able to sustain the momentum he helped build and keep pressing the crucial themes of anti-corruption and good governance.”  The Green Party will have to organize better and think more strategically to ensure its survival. For starters, they will have to concentrate on building representation in the Congress, so that if they do elect one of their own to the presidency, he or she would actually be able to pursue and accomplish Green Party initiatives. Pachón concedes, “for Mockus, this is it, but with the right focus and work, the Green Party can become a decisive political force.”  The future success of the Green Party will depend on whether they can begin to behave like a political party.

The Green Party was too progressive to be elected, but it burst onto the national stage and captured the voters’ attention. Beyond the draw of mere personality politics, the Green Party’s success was rooted in its ability to perceive new trends and developments in Colombia. First, the Green Party understood the growing importance of the Internet and social networks in Colombia. Its campaign allowed voters to feel they were a part of a revolutionary movement, thereby generating considerable excitement. Second, the Party grew out of Colombia’s recent political stability. Ten years ago the country was on the brink of state failure, but today Colombia is thriving. The Green Party capitalized on this increasing sense of stability to present fresh, different ideas. It allowed voters to picture a government that could make incredible changes under a stable Colombia.

However, only about a third of Colombians have access to Internet and the country is not yet totally stable. Therefore, Colombia did not leap into the unknown and elect Antanas Mockus. Despite the dramatic ups and downs of the lead-up to the election, Colombia ultimately elected the candidate with whom it felt more comfortable. Juan Manuel Santos not only has the political chops and adroitness to be president, but he also represented the safe choice. Colombians knew that Santos would be relatively predictable and not try and turn their country into a social experiment. He would behave responsibly in the international arena, while making strides toward Colombia’s goals. Most of all, Santos would abide by conventions and respect the game of politics, because he ultimately represents politics as usual.

The Green Party will be only marginally successful in the future, because it is too disorganized, its members are too different, and its focus is too much on the future and not enough on the present. However, the Green Party succeeded in identifying and profiting from powerful new trends in Colombia that are not going away. No candidate in the next election cycle will be able to win without capitalizing on Colombia’s growing number of Internet users or the feeling of excitement derived from recent stabilization. Antanas Mockus and the Green Party may have lost the race, but they succeeded in changing the dialogue in Colombian politics and ushering in a vision of the country’s future.