Ex-defense minister dominates Colombia presidential vote, faces Green Party outsider in runoff

By Frank Bajak, AP
Monday, May 31, 2010

Colombia runoff: ex-defense minister vs. Mockus

BOGOTA, Colombia — A former defense minister from an elite political clan fell just short of a first-round victory in Colombia’s presidential elections while trouncing his closest rival, an unorthodox Green Party candidate.

Juan Manuel Santos, who helped craft the wildly popular security policies of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, won 47 percent of the vote Sunday to top a field of nine candidates.

Antanas Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants who stressed clean government and promised a tax increase, got 21 percent. A former two-time mayor of the Colombian capital, he catapulted into contention in pre-election polls only to falter at the ballot box.

Santos, 58, is a U.S.-trained economist and the great-nephew of a president whose family long ran the country’s leading newspaper. His first cousin, Francisco Santos, was Uribe’s vice president. A nephew, Alejandro Santos, is editor of Semana, the country’s leading newsmagazine. After serving three administrations as a Cabinet minister, he is in his first race for elected office.

Santos came unexpectedly close to winning the simple majority that would have precluded the June 20 runoff.

Addressing jubilant supporters Sunday night, he called the results an endorsement of the outgoing administration.

“Mr. President Uribe, this is your triumph and that of those who want to preserve your immense legacy,” he said. “Most Colombians voted to defend your achievements and proposals.”

Santos, who rejected the Mockus-proposed tax increase as hurting economic growth, won in all but one of Colombia’s provinces and even took Bogota.

Finishing third with 10 percent was German Vargas of Cambio Radical, a member of Uribe’s governing coalition along with Santos’ National Unity party. Gustavo Petro of the leftist Polo Democratico Alternativo earned 9 percent.

Although generally peaceful, Sunday was marked by nearly two dozen clashes with leftist rebels that authorities said claimed the lives of four soldiers, a potent reminder that Colombia’s half century-old conflict is far from resolved. Just last week, nine marines were killed in a single engagement.

None of four major losing candidates made an immediate endorsement but it was noteworthy that the three candidates from parties in Uribe’s governing coalition together won 61 percent of the vote. Uribe was re-elected in 2006 with 62 percent.

The continuing violence — and Mockus’ lack of clarity on how he would deal with it as well as inexperience in international affairs — favored Santos.

“I suspect for some there was tension between the head and the heart. In a country still at war, the head won out,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

Mockus, running for president for the third time, distinguishes himself with a simple message: Only through education and respect for the law will Colombians find true security. His colorful, pedagogical style catapulted him from fringe status. He has the most Facebook and Twitter fans among candidates.

But Mockus committed several gaffes during the campaign that revealed him a relative novice in foreign policy and security matters.

All Sunday’s soldier deaths were blamed by the government on the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

As Uribe’s defense minister from 2006-2009, Santos helped knock the wind out of the FARC, Latin America’s last remaining major rebel army.

Santos also clashed with leftist Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Earlier this month, a judge in Ecuador ordered Santos’ arrest for authorizing a cross-border raid into Colombia’s southern neighbor in 2008 that killed the FARC’s No. 2 commander.

Mockus, 58, says he would not have made the incursion into Ecuador. But he says he also would be tough on the FARC.

And although not directly criticizing Uribe, Mockus is among Colombians expressing dismay at the scandals that have plagued the outgoing president, including domestic spying, extrajudicial killings by soldiers, and the awarding of agricultural subsidies to political cronies.

Many of his supporters associate Santos with Uribe’s perceived ethical failings.

“God has given us another chance and we’re going to try Mockus because hope is the last thing one can lose,” said Maria Gutierrez, a 57-year-old Bogota economist. “Mockus is an intelligent man and a pacifist and he won’t fight with Correa or Chavez.”

Santos, meanwhile, has sought to distance himself from the scandals plaguing Uribe’s legacy.

As defense minister, he fired 27 officers in late 2008 when it became clear prosecutors would be drawing up charges against soldiers accused of killing more than 1,000 civilians.

Critics say he bears some responsibility, but Santos contends it was he who put an end to the abuses.

Associated Press Writers Vivian Sequera, Cesar Garcia and Luisa Fernanda Cuellar contributed to this report.

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