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FARC foe will face runoff in Colombia

Challenger spoils a Santos shoo-in

By Frank Bajak
Associated Press / May 31, 2010

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BOGOTA — A former defense minister promising to build on President Alvaro Uribe’s security gains finished first in Colombia’s presidential elections yesterday, but a runoff vote will be needed.

With 98 percent of the vote counted, Juan Manuel Santos had 47 percent against 21 percent for Antanas Mockus, a maverick outsider and former mayor of Bogota who pledged clean government in a country plagued by endemic corruption.

Because no candidate gained a simple majority, the two top vote-getters will meet in a June 20 runoff.

Third with 10 percent was German Vargas of Cambio Radical, which along with Santos’s National Unity party is a member of Uribe’s governing coalition. The main opposition candidate, Gustavo Petro of the leftist Polo Democratico Alternativo, had 9 percent. Five other candidates shared the remaining votes.

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

Santos, a 58-year-old a Cabinet minister in three administrations, was in a statistical dead heat in preelection polls with Mockus, a son of Lithuanian immigrants running on the Green Party slate.

Voting was on the whole and orderly, though independent election observers reported isolated cases of vote-buying.

Combat was reported in at least seven regions, most in rural coca-growing centers in the south and west but also in Guajira state in the northeast, where one of the soldiers was killed. All three combat deaths were blamed by the government on the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC.

The guerrillas had called on Colombians to boycott the vote but did not order people to stay off the roads, as it has done in some more isolated provinces during elections.

Santos, a first cousin of the outgoing vice president, billed himself as a continuation of Uribe’s hugely popular US-backed military buildup, which sharply curtailed kidnappings and murders, though the homicide rate rose last year to 39.3 per 100,000 from 34.3 in 2008.

As defense minister from 2006-2009, he helped knock the wind out of the FARC, Latin America’s last remaining major rebel army, which authorities say numbers less than 9,000 thanks to massive desertions. Santos is a University of Kansas graduate whose family long ran El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper.

Mockus, also 58, is a mathematician, philosopher, and former National University rector who says he’ll also be tough on the FARC. And though careful not to criticize Uribe, he has expressed dismay at the battery of scandals that have plagued the outgoing president, such as domestic spying, extrajudicial killings by soldiers, and the awarding of agricultural subsidies to political cronies. Mockus also advocates raising taxes, which Santos opposes.

Mockus distinguished himself not by focusing directly on the scandals plaguing Uribe but instead with a simple message: Only through education and respect for the law will Colombians find true security. His colorful, pedagogical style, featuring political rallies that were like a cross between a civics lectures and a revival meeting, catapulted him from fringe status into a contender in three short months.

A victory for Mockus would make him the world’s first Green Party president. It also could improve relations with left-leaning neighbors: Mockus says he would not have permitted the cross-border raid into Ecuador in March 2008 that killed a top FARC commander and soured relations with Colombia’s southern neighbor as well as Venezuela.

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