Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bogotá's Next Mayor

Who will Bogotanos choose to lead their metropolus?

One week from today, Bogotanos will go to the polls to elect a new mayor - and it's high time. After all, residents' image of their city has slumped, the current mayor is in prison and the city seems to be sinking on basic quality-of-life factors like crime, transit and corruption.

Enrique Peñalosa
This is a big, and unfortunate, shift. Just a few years ago, Bogotá was admired worldwide for its innovative policies, including its pioneering TransMilenio express bus system, its bike lane network and policies to reclaim public space and create a spirit of civic pride.

Not many Bogotanos feel that spirit today. And, with more and more cars flooding the city, road construction everywhere and persistent poverty and violence, traffic congestion and crime look likely to just get worse.

Gustavo Petro
So, this mayoral election is a key one. Will Bogotá retake its innovative path? Or will it fall victim to the miseries of so many of the developing world's mega-cities and lose its quality of life in a mess of pollution, crime, traffic jams and social distrust?

So, the city's reached a key juncture. And, fittingly, Bogotá's voters face a dramatic choice for mayor: should they turn left or write?

The two candidates who are leading according to recent polls are ex-Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, generally considered a conservative, and leftist one-time M-19 guerrilla Gustavo Petro. Ex-Senator Gina Parody, who is allied with ex-Mayor Antanas Mockus, might have an outside shot.

The good news is that all the leading candidates appear to be serious, principled leaders and not to be corrupt. And, neither Petro nor Peñalosa has campaigned using facile promises, as did current imprisoned Mayor Samuel Moreno, who rode to City Hall on a smile and a promise to build a metro. That's a pie-in-the-sky project which will take many years, if Bogotá can afford it at all. Instead, Moreno instead apparently filled his and his friends' pockets with public money from the TransMilenio expansion contracts - which are still far from finished.

Petro promises free water for the poor. 
Petro's only populist stance has been his promise of several cubic meters of free water - which is an invitation to waste. If he wants to help the poor and help the city and conserve resources, he should instead offer subsidized water-conservation devices, such as low-flow toilets and shower-heads.

Some of the minor mayoral candidates - who, thankfully, have no chance of victory - are once again promising to build Bogotá out of its traffic tangles with a subway and urban freeways. Those are unrealistic fantasies for a mostly poor city with an exploding number of private vehicles. Bogotá should spend its limited funds on parks, schools, job training, law enforcement and improving public spaces, rather than expanding a road system to benefit primarily the minority who own private cars. And, the sad experiences of cities the world over which have bankrupted themselves paving themselves over to give cars room have shown that more road space only promotes more driving, quickly filling up the new space and producing even more monumental traffic jams.

Fortunately, both Petro and Peñalosa seem to favor demand-control policies such as a congestion charge, which would discourage unnecessary driving and would finance public transit. And both Petro and Peñalosa have demonstrated a willingness to pursue unpopular policies.

Bogotá and Colombia have the misfortune to suffer from some of the most unequal wealth distribution  rates in the world, and lots of recent research has shown that this situation has a corrosive effect on a society. When citizens see an unbridgeable impasse between themselves and others, the poor feel justified in stealing what they believe society will never provide them, and the rich feel no obligation to make sacrifices for the less fortunate.

TransMilenio buses: Peñalosa started the express-bus system. 
On this point, both Petro and Peñalosa appear promising. As mayor, the long-time leftist Petro would surely seek ways to redistribute income from the wealthiest Bogotanos to the poorest, perhaps thru taxes, user fees and other charges which would finance services for the poor. Peñalosa, I suspect, would also expand services and provide more quality-of-life opportunities for the poor, by improving schools, transit and public space for the poor.

So, I think that both Petro and Peñalosa would, hopefully, probably, pursue positive policies for the mass of Bogotanos. I repeat: hopefully.

But the great difference between the two is their experience. Peñalosa has been a successful mayor, who has become an international authority on urban development issues. Petro, in contrast, doesn't have any executive experience except from back in his guerrilla days.

Voters should ask: With Bogotá at a crucial juncture, will its citizens choose a mayor with proven experience or select an unknown to lead them?
A Peñalosa campaign banner. 'Peñalosa loves Bogotá, knows what to do and can change the city.' Perhaps significantly, the banner is on an evangelical church, and a blogger (see below) writes that Peñalosa is seeking support from conservative evangelicals - a worrisome relationship if true.  
To me, the choice is obvious. Petro will have another opportunity.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours, which (full disclosure) has rented bikes to Peñalosa's campaigns.


Colombialiv said...

Personally, I think Peñalosa would be a disaster, and I really hope that Petro will win.

Regardig Peñalosa, this is an excellent blog post:

Miguel said...

That blogger makes lots of good points. If Peñalosa is really cozying up to religious fundamentalists, it is worrying. On the other hand, 'family values' has never been part of his platform, as far as I know. But, I may have a double standard, since U.S. presidential candidate Ricky Perry's associations with religious fundamentalists really scares me. And, the mayorlty of Bogotá might be the path to Colombia's presidency.

Also, it's hard to imagine a Green Party embracing religious fundamentalist positions. Or, perhaps this is just more evidence of the meaninglessness of party labels here.

Miguel said...

This discussion also points to the issue of religious influence in politics, which in my opinion is very damaging for lots of reasons: fundamentalist religions ignore science, they discriminate, they promise people salvation but don't worry much about this present world. Colombia's major religious party is MIRA, which is evangelical. Ironically, there's no major Catholic party.

Still, Petro is an unknown. Could he administer a city? He has no experience. And could Bogota stand a second-succesive bad mayor?