As mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus sometimes traded his coat and tie for tights and a red cape. Calling himself "Super Citizen," Mockus was a real-life action hero, albeit nerdish and skinny, who fought for clean government, urban renewal and civic solidarity. He once took a shower on television to show viewers ways to conserve water, hired mimes to stand near traffic to humiliate and educate reckless drivers and closed bars at 1 a.m. to reduce alcohol-related deaths.
The unorthodox tactics worked: Mockus is widely credited with helping transform the traffic-choked, crime-infested metropolis of 7 million people into one of Latin America's most livable capitals. And he may soon get to work his eccentric magic on an entire nation. As the May 30 presidential election approaches, Mockus, the candidate of Colombia's center-left Green Party, has rocketed to the top or near the top of most polls, neck and neck with the establishment candidate, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. Along the way, Mockus has waged a campaign that seems part university seminar and part church revival. "We've shown that we can compete honestly, with all our cards on the table, and transform the campaign process," Mockus told TIME.
A former mathematics and philosophy professor and the son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mockus, 58, is an unlikely Colombian political icon. He first made headlines in the early 1990s when, as dean of Bogotá's National University, he mooned a group of boisterous students in an effort to gain their attention. (They quieted down.) He was elected Bogotá's mayor in 1994 and again in 2000. But his two previous presidential bids, in 1998 and 2006, came up way short. In 2006 he garnered just 1.2% of the vote. Until a few months ago, polls had him in single digits again. "He was going nowhere," says former Bogotá mayor Paul Bromberg. "I told him, 'Antanas, drop out! This is embarrassing!'"
Instead, Mockus stubbornly plowed ahead and was rewarded in February when Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled that current President Alvaro Uribe could not run for a third four-year term. Uribe, who won easily in 2002 and 2006 and is credited with restoring security in a country beleaguered by drug-trafficking violence and a four-decade-old war against Marxist guerrillas, is one of Colombia's most popular Presidents. "He would have been very difficult to beat," Mockus concedes at his modest home in a working-class Bogotá neighborhood. But "voters realized," he added, that Santos, anointed by Uribe as his successor, "is not the same as Uribe."
Santos did play a major role in Uribe's presidential success, directing a series of stunning raids against guerrillas as well as a 2008 operation that rescued 15 rebel-held hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors. The U.S. has been supportive of Uribe's policies; Washington's more than $5 billion in military aid to Colombia since 2000 has made the South American nation the largest U.S. aid recipient in the hemisphere and one of its most important allies in Latin America. "We have to continue with what President Uribe started," says Santos, whose conservative U party cleaned up in the March 14 congressional elections.
Still, Santos personally lacks the President's charisma, and he's often found himself on the defensive over a rash of scandals that marred Uribe's second term, including a scheme by government intelligence agents to tap the phones of journalists and opposition politicians. Santos was also running the Defense Ministry in 2008 when Colombian troops were accused of executing innocent civilians and dressing them up as guerrillas in order to receive promotions. Santos quickly fired more than two dozen high-ranking officers over the murders, but they've come to symbolize the underbelly of Uribe's security crusade. In that regard, says political analyst Carlos Eduardo Jaramillo, "people feel dirty, like they've been used, like everything is corrupt. They want someone who guarantees clean government."
That has enhanced the appeal of Mockus, who "is seen as the man with the paintbrush who will whitewash Colombia's house," says Jaramillo. To boost Santos, Uribe has tried to depict Mockus as a dove even though he publicly decorated the centrist Mockus in 2003 for his crime-fighting efforts as mayor of Bogotá. Uribe's own accomplishments in that sense may actually hurt Santos: security has improved to the point that it's no longer the No. 1 issue for Colombians, who seem more worried now about finding jobs and fixing a near bankrupt health system.
Mockus' quirkiness seems to be another asset. Wearing sunglasses and his Abe Lincoln beard, he rarely attacks his opponents and, to many voters, comes across as refreshingly forthright. Last month he told a news conference that he suffers from early-stage Parkinson's disease; when asked in a recent radio interview about the Ten Commandments, the twice-married Mockus admitted his biggest temptation is other women. But perhaps his most appealing message, especially among his large following with young voters and on Facebook, is that people are capable of changing. "I want to transform the concept of what's acceptable behavior," Mockus says, referring particularly to Latin America's epic political corruption.
At the same time, Mockus has stocked his campaign with well-regarded administrators, including former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo, who dropped his own presidential bid to be Mockus' running mate. That still leaves six candidates, however, meaning neither Mockus (who got 34% in a recent voter poll) nor Santos (35%) is likely to attain the majority needed to avoid a second round on June 20. Some polls suggest a virtual dead heat in a runoff between the two; others put Mockus ahead.
Even if Mockus prevails, some analysts foresee gridlock because his party controls only a handful of seats in Congress. He could win over lawmakers by handing out jobs and other political treats, but he insists he'll reject that kind of traditional patronage, which he calls the plague of Colombian politics. "Mockus is a philosopher, not a political scientist," says ex-mayor Bromberg. "He will try to do some good things. But he's not good at negotiating. He won't give in unless you convince him that your point of view is correct."
In that case, Colombia could become one massive, unruly classroom for Mockus. And he'd have to do more than drop his pants to restore order.