- Associated Press - Friday, June 13, 2014

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - The man who hopes to unseat Juan Manuel Santos as president was seething.

“It’s not possible to respect you. You don’t have the stature,” said Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, close enough to land a punch and looking as if he wanted to, as he confronted Santos in the final televised debate ahead of Sunday’s election.

“Calm down. Calm down,” urged Santos, palms up at his lectern.

Colombia’s nastiest presidential campaign in years has focused largely on a single issue: Santos’ prescription for ending the nation’s half-century-old guerrilla conflict.

The patrician, U.S.-educated incumbent says peace is near after 18 months of slow-going talks in Cuba that he had hoped to wrap up months ago. Zuluaga, a former finance minister who never misses a chance to remind voters of his small-town roots, accuses Santos of selling the country out to an insurgency that is already on the ropes.

The hand-picked candidate of former President Alvaro Uribe, who remains a powerful political player, Zuluaga won the most votes among the five candidates in the election’s first round on May 25.

Zuluaga has set what appear to be impossible conditions for continued peace talks if he wins: The rebels must halt all military activity, and some would essentially have to agree to jail time.

With Colombia’s enduring conflict claiming more than 200,000 lives and stunting an industrious nation’s economic growth, outsiders might think the peacemaker would have an edge.

But this is Colombia, where “peace is a strange land,” says political analyst Leon Valencia, a former National Liberation Army rebel who put down arms two decades ago.

The very prospect of a peace accord has divided the country in half, with most opinion polls calling the race a dead heat.

Uribe and Zuluaga say the peace Santos is negotiating would mean “terrorist murderers” entering Congress. Santos denies he would let war criminals to go unpunished.

The irony is that Santos, first as Uribe’s defense minister and then in his initial two years as president, wielded an increasingly effective U.S.-backed military to badly weaken the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, killing the band’s top leaders and flattening jungle camps with precision airstrikes.

The only Colombian who can take as much credit is Uribe himself, who took Santos’ peace talks as a personal affront and has been wielding Twitter like a Gatling gun against his former defense chief.

Zuluaga’s foes say he is nothing more than a puppet of Uribe, who was elected to the Senate in March and for whom he served as finance minister.

Valencia says Zuluaga’s supporters don’t care. For them, he says, they “like that he is a puppet and not someone who is going to betray Uribe like Santos did.”

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