Santos handily wins first round of Colombian presidential election

By Juan Forero
Monday, May 31, 2010

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- A former defense minister who would continue President Álvaro Uribe's tough anti-guerrilla policies handily defeated a former Bogota mayor Sunday in the first round of presidential elections. Juan Manuel Santos, 58, who oversaw the most decisive strikes against rebel forces, did not garner the simple majority needed to win outright. But his lead over the second-place finisher, Antanas Mockus, was so commanding that he is likely to win the presidency in a second round of voting on June 20.

"It's quite a landslide," said Cynthia Arnson, a Colombia scholar at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center. "It pretty much seems to me that Santos has a lock on the second round."

Santos took 46.6 percent of the vote -- or 6.7 million voters, more than double the 3.1 million who voted for Mockus. In the second round, he can count on many of the pro-Uribe voters who backed Germán Vargas Lleras, the third-place finisher, and Noemi Sanin, a former Uribe administration diplomat who finished a distant fifth.

Mockus, also 58, had risen in the polls in recent weeks, appealing to voters captivated by his message of delivering clean government. "Mockus is talking about building confidence, of a positive attitude in addressing the nation's problems," said Ernesto Correa, 56, a doctor.

But once in the voting booth, more Colombians supported the candidate they perceived as the safe bet -- the man who would continue Uribe's popular policies, analysts said. Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants and a two-time mayor of Bogota, lost all but one state and Bogota, which was considered his stronghold.

The election has been closely watched by Latin America policy-makers in Washington, many of whom view Colombia as the United States' most trusted ally in the region. Under Uribe, Colombia applied Washington's blueprint for fighting the war on drugs while serving as a bulwark against Venezuela's vehemently anti-American president, Hugo Chávez. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations provided Uribe with $6 billion in mostly military aid.

"He advanced U.S. interests, and he advanced the interests of Colombia," Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador in Colombia, said of Uribe. "He was a dedicated guy. He worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week. That's the kind of leader the United States had been waiting for for 20 years."

Mery Gómez, a 69-year-old housewife, is among those who said that a vote for Santos would be a vote for policies she supports.

"He is the continuation of the Uribe government, and I think Uribe's policies were excellent," Gómez said, moments after voting in the city's historic heart. "Here, we have never had a president like him."

The success of Uribe's policies, though, posed challenges for the Santos campaign. Polls had shown that Colombia's economy and its high unemployment rate had become more important to the public than the threat posed by the guerrillas.

The scandals that plagued the Uribe administration also gave Mockus fresh ammunition. Among the most serious included the systematic killings of poor farmers by soldiers hoping to inflate the number of combat kills to win extra pay and vacation time.

In one presidential debate after the other, Santos said that he helped uncover the killings and instituted policies to prevent extrajudicial executions, as they are known. Mockus lashed out against the political violence in Colombia, leading his supporters at rallies in a chant: "Life is sacred." The secret police under Uribe, the DAS, has also been roiled by scandal, with investigators revealing that a specialized unit targeted the president's political opponents for surveillance. Still, on Sunday, voters did not blame Santos for the scandals.

As he cast his vote, Ernesto Fonseca said he was remembering the positive aspects of the past eight years. "Before Uribe, there was not much security," said Fonseca, a security guard. "I voted for Santos."

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