- Associated Press - Sunday, May 30, 2010

BOGOTA, Colombia | A conservative former defense minister who promises to build on Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s security gains easily defeated a maverick outsider in Colombia’s presidential election Sunday, but fell short of the votes needed to avoid a runoff.

Juan Manuel Santos, a political veteran who says he’ll keep up the pressure on leftist rebels that fed Mr. Uribe’s popularity, won 47 percent support against 21 percent for Antanas Mockus, a mathematician who ran an unorthodox “clean government” campaign as Green Party candidate.

Mr. Santos, 58, needed a simple majority — 50 percent plus 1 — to avoid the June 20 runoff. He won in all but one of Colombia’s provinces and even took Bogota, considered a stronghold of Mr. Mockus, who was twice the capital’s mayor.

Mr. Uribe was barred by a February court ruling from running for a third straight term.

Finishing third Sunday with 10 percent was German Vargas of Cambio Radical, which along with Mr. Santos’ National Unity party is a member of Mr. Uribe’s governing coalition. Trailing him with 9 percent was the main opposition candidate, Gustavo Petro of the leftist Polo Democratico Alternativo. Foreign Minister Noemi Sanin of the Uribe-allied Conservative Party won 6 percent, and Liberal Party candidate Rafael Pardo, an early 1990s defense minister, got 4 percent.

Although generally peaceful, Sunday was marked by nearly two dozen clashes with leftist rebels that claimed the lives of three soldiers, a potent reminder that Colombia’s half century-old conflict is far from resolved.

The continuing violence — and Mr. Mockus’ lack of clarity on how he would deal with it — favored Mr. Santos, a 58-year-old a Cabinet minister in three administrations running for elected office for the first time.

In pre-election polls, he was in a statistical dead heat with Mr. Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. Those polls proved illusory.

“My sense is that many Colombians were drawn to Mockus, his appealing message and what he represented, but in the end were worried about [electing] a relative novice on security and foreign-policy questions,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

Mr. Mockus committed several gaffes during the campaign that revealed his inexperience in international relations.

The outcome of the June 20 runoff “will depend largely upon the coalitions formed between the Santos and Mockus camps with the elections ‘losers,’” said Arlene Tickner, a University of the Andes political scientist.

Mr. Vargas’ supporters are expected to back the front-running Mr. Santos, while the maverick Mr. Mockus likely will get the Petro and Pardo vote, she said. None of the losers immediately made an endorsement, and it’s unclear what Mr. Sanin’s voters will do.

Combat was reported Sunday in six regions, and all three soldier deaths were blamed by the government on the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It had called on Colombians to boycott Sunday’s vote, but did not order people to stay off the roads, as it has done in rural areas in past elections.

As defense minister from 2006 to 2009, Mr. Santos helped knock the wind out of the FARC, Latin America’s last remaining major rebel army. Authorities say it now numbers fewer than 9,000.

In Bogota, Cecilia de Gaitan, 75, said she cast her ballot for Mr. Mockus hoping he might begin to rid Colombia of its endemic corruption.

“It won’t be easy, but you have to vote with hope,” she said. She had voted for Mr. Uribe in the past two elections, but called his second term “disastrous” and said she considers Mr. Santos “capable, but more of the same.”

But many voters didn’t think Mr. Mockus has what it takes to manage a country at war whose institutions remain threatened by cocaine-trafficking criminal bands.

“He surely is the most honorable of all [the candidates], but you don’t run a government on utopian ideas,” said David Lewinski, 37, a health care supply business owner who said he voted for Mr. Vargas, but would opt for Mr. Santos in a runoff.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide