BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian presidential candidate Antanas Mockus on Friday announced he has Parkinson’s disease, just as two opinion polls showed him jumping to second place in the May 30 election race.
Mockus, 58, a former mayor of Bogota, passed Conservative Noemi Sanin but is running well behind the favorite, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos.
Mockus told local radio that his diagnosis would not affect his work and he had 12 years of normal life ahead thanks to medication. His illness is in its initial stages, he said.
A survey commissioned by local television channel CM& gave Mockus 22 percent support, edging ahead of Sanin with 20 percent. Santos, who is closely identified with the security policies of incumbent Alvaro Uribe, leads with 37 percent.
El Tiempo newspaper also said Mockus, a mathematician and the son of Lithuanian immigrants, had moved into second behind Santos, according to survey data it published on Friday.
Uribe’s government has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid aimed at fighting cocaine-funded Marxist guerrillas. Washington sees Colombia as a market-friendly buffer against leftist governments in neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador and investors are keen to see Uribe’s policies continue.
The announcement of Parkinson’s poses a challenge for Mockus, who was endorsed this week by former Medellin Mayor Sergio Fajardo, another independent who dropped his own presidential bid to become Mockus’s running-mate.
“The condition, the doctors tell me, is under control,” Mockus told reporters. “I understand people’s concern, but I ask that they not crucify me for having a physical illness.”
Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological ailment that affects movement. Colombia has a presidential term of four years with the possibility of one reelection.
Mockus, a political outsider, is popular among young, educated voters in cities like Bogota and Medellin. He is expected to focus on winning support in Caribbean coastal areas and the rural southwest of Colombia.
“He seems to be in the same position that Uribe was in 2002, when he started way behind in the polls and then climbed very quickly,” said Mauricio Romero, professor of political science at Bogota’s Javeriana University.
“Mockus’s anti-corruption stance and emphasis on building a civic culture are attractive to a lot of people. He also has wide support in the business community,” Romero said. “Having Parkinson’s should not hurt him politically, but it remains to be seen how much support he can gain before May 30.”
In the likely case that no candidate gets more than half the vote, the election will go to a second round in June.
Reporting by Hugh Bronstein, editing by Anthony Boadle and Alan Elsner