- Associated Press - Sunday, June 20, 2010

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombians voted for a successor to President Alvaro Uribe on Sunday in what was expected to be a rout favoring a former defense minister who oversaw a major weakening of leftist rebels.

Juan Manuel Santos had a 37-point advantage in pre-election polls over political outsider and former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus.

Mr. Santos won 47 percent of the vote in the May 30 first round, just shy of the simple majority needed for victory. He and Mr. Mockus earlier were neck and neck in some surveys, but a series of gaffes torpedoed Mr. Mockus’ eccentric campaign.

Voting appeared to proceed peacefully Sunday, with few reports of irregularities beyond the burning of some ballots by suspected rebels in the northeastern state of Norte de Santander.

“Security. Security,” responded Bogota clothing factory owner Humberto Botero, 52, when asked why he voted for Mr. Santos. “He’s a statesman. He’s someone who knows the country, who knows how to surround himself with talent.”

Mr. Santos, a 58-year-old economist who served previous Colombian administrations as finance and foreign commerce minister, won the endorsement of most of the country’s political establishment after the first round of voting.

Mr. Santos also may benefit from the military’s rescue a week ago of three police officers and an army sergeant who were held for nearly 12 years by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s main rebel band.

He promises to build on the security gains of Mr. Uribe, who remains hugely popular but was barred from seeking a third consecutive term.

But Mr. Santos also is trying to broaden his appeal by vowing to help the poor in a nation notorious for income inequality, where more than two in five of its 44 million people live on less than $2 a day.

“I’m going to give priority to the social aspect, to employment, to the fight against poverty since I don’t need to prioritize security,” Mr. Santos told the Associated Press in a pre-election interview. Colombia’s annual per-capita social spending is about $400, less than half that of Mexico or Chile.

Mr. Mockus’ clean-government campaign was a steamrolling sensation three months ago, and those who voted for him Sunday praised his refreshing honesty and promise to rid Colombia of the endemic corruption that he says is at the root of its half-century-old civil conflict.

“He seems to me a peaceful man,” said Elsa Torres, a 66-year-old homemaker from turbulent Bolivar state on the Caribbean coast. “As he says, he’s on the side of culture and education. Those things are important for me because they are what we lack at the moment.”

Mr. Mockus’ campaign lost much of its luster after the Green Party candidate won just 21 percent of the vote in the first round.

A former university rector and son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mr. Mockus led many Colombians to question his ability to manage the military and foreign relations of a country still mired in a half-century-old conflict with guerrillas.

At one point, he suggested Colombia dissolve its military. Then he backtracked. He also suggested he would have no choice but to extradite Mr. Uribe if an Ecuadorean court convicted him of wrongdoing in a 2008 cross-border raid. In fact, presidents can deny extradition requests.

Mr. Mockus, a mathematician and philosopher, also alienated voters by promising a tax increase.

“Mockus simply isn’t of the stature to be president and manage a country as complex as Colombia,” said Diego Munoz, a 36-year-old street vendor who voted for Mr. Santos.

Being a political outsider was Mr. Mockus’ strength — but also proved his weakness, said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington think tank Inter-American Dialogue.

“He challenged politics as usual but also needed to play the political game to build support. He wasn’t willing or able to do that,” Mr. Shifter said.

Mr. Santos, a University of Kansas graduate, is a Colombian political blue blood despite making his first run for elected office. He is a great-nephew of a president whose family long ran the country’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo.

Mr. Santos may have benefited politically from a government welfare payment program called Accion Social that grew under Mr. Uribe from 320,000 recipient families to 2.2 million.

But Mr. Santos said no one can prove a gain in votes for him or other candidates from his National Unity party —which dominated March 14 legislative elections — resulted from Accion Social’s growth.

“People are very grateful, above all in the most poor sectors, that we have decreased the violence, from which the poor suffer most,” he said. Indeed, Mr. Santos has polled better among Colombia’s poor than its rich.

As Mr. Uribe’s defense minister in 2006-09, he helped knock the wind out of the FARC, Latin America’s last remaining major rebel army, overseeing the bloodless ruse that rescued from FARC captivity presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 others.

He also clashed often with leftist Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

Last month, a judge in Ecuador ordered Mr. Santos’ arrest for authorizing the 2008 cross-border raid on a FARC base inside Colombia’s southern neighbor that killed the rebel group’s No. 2 commander, Raul Reyes.

Mr. Santos called the arrest warrant absurd because the Colombian state, not him individually, carried out the raid.

He said it wouldn’t prevent him from visiting Ecuador as president if invited. Further, Mr. Santos said he would invite Mr. Chavez and the Venezuelan leader’s leftist allies to his Aug. 7 inauguration if he won the presidency.

“We’re going to invite all the countries with which we have relations. I want good relations with all our neighbors,” Mr. Santos said.


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