Former defense minister ahead in Colombia election

Juan Manuel Santos, a veteran defense minister and political heir to conservative President Alvaro Uribe, surged well ahead in voting Sunday in Colombia’s hard-fought presidential election but fell just shy of winning the simple majority that would have given him the office.

Belying most preelection polls, Santos won more than twice as many votes as his nearest rival, former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus, an eccentric underdog whose novel, colorful campaign had put him in serious competition with the better-established Santos.

The two will head for a runoff on June 20 unless Mockus drops out. Santos’ huge margin in Sunday’s vote, and his likely ability to win support from many of the seven other candidates in the race, seems to all but assure his eventual victory.

Jobs and public safety were issues that dominated the race. Voting on Sunday was largely peaceful, with security forces on high alert.


With all votes counted, Santos took 46.6% to 21.5% for Mockus.

Analysts, noting that polls had erroneously suggested a much closer race, said Mockus may have been judged too much of a novice on the national stage, even though his campaign resonated with Colombians weary of corruption and yearning for greater democracy and an emphasis on social programs.

In the end, Santos was seen as the safer bet, the analysts said.

“This was clearly a vote for continuity,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.


Santos, who served as defense minister during the Uribe administration’s successful battles against leftist guerrillas, was the front-runner during much of the campaign. He capitalized on his relationship with the president, promising to continue the security gains that had transformed Colombia in the last decade.

Uribe, still a popular chief executive and a fervent U.S. ally, is widely credited with using an iron hand to bring Colombia back from the brink of disaster, an era when cocaine kingpins, paramilitaries and rebels stoked widespread violence.

But his administration has been repeatedly rocked by scandals, including cases of domestic spying and illegal killings of civilians by soldiers. A brother has been linked to death squads, a charge both deny.

That may initially have eroded some of Santos’ support and helped create an opening for Mockus, a two-time mayor of Bogota and son of Lithuanian immigrants. He came from virtually nowhere and, using social media such as Facebook and other novel campaign tactics, gave Santos a run for his money.

A mathematician and former university rector who represents the Green Party, the bearded Mockus also emphasized the need to eradicate corruption and create jobs and has pushed for “good citizenship” among Colombians.

“I love the way he does politics, far from the traditional model, and that makes me have confidence in him,” said Uwaldo Cadavid, a 38-year-old engineer on his way to vote Sunday morning. Cadavid said he was casting his ballot for Mockus. “Traditional politics in Colombia is associated with corruption, and Mockus did a good job as mayor.”

But the kinds of fans generated by Facebook may not ultimately walk to their ballot stations, and more traditional Colombians appeared to make up a large part of the turnout.

Cecilia Parra, a 62-year-old pensioner, said she hoped Santos would succeed Uribe.


“He is strong and won’t allow himself to be dominated by the guerrillas or the opposition because he fears no one,” Parra said as she voted. “I like him because he will continue the work that Uribe started.”

Both candidates have said they will create jobs and slash unemployment, but only Mockus, 58, has indicated that he would raise taxes to achieve that goal. Santos, also 58, has vowed to maintain military pressure on guerrillas still fighting in Colombia’s countryside.

Mockus proved himself tough on crime during his stints as mayor of Bogota, but he also said education and social programs were needed to fight trafficking, drug use and insurgencies.

Both men have ruled out negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Latin America’s last major rebel army.

Special correspondent Gonzalez reported from Bogota and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Mexico City.