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Colombia presidential vote favors ruling party

A conservative former defense minister easily defeated a maverick outsider in Colombia's presidential election Sunday but fell short of the votes needed to avoid a runoff.
Women look at banner serving as a sample ballot displaying candidates outside a polling station during presidential elections in Medellin, Colombia, on Sunday.
Women look at banner serving as a sample ballot displaying candidates outside a polling station during presidential elections in Medellin, Colombia, on Sunday.Luis Benavides / ASSOCIATED PRESS
/ Source: The Associated Press

A conservative former defense minister who promises to build on Alvaro Uribe's security gains easily defeated a maverick outsider in Colombia's presidential election Sunday but fell short of the votes needed to avoid a runoff.

Juan Manuel Santos, a political veteran who says he'll keep up the pressure on leftist rebels that fed President Uribe's popularity, won 47 percent support against 21 percent for Antanas Mockus, a mathematician who ran an unorthodox clean government campaign as Green Party candidate.

Santos, 58, needed a simple majority — 50 percent plus 1 — to avoid the June 20 runoff. He won in all but one of Colombia's provinces and even took Bogota, considered a stronghold of Mockus, who was twice the capital's mayor.

Uribe was barred by a February court ruling from running for a third straight term.

Finishing third Sunday with 10 percent was German Vargas of Cambio Radical, which along with Santos' National Unity party is a member of Uribe's governing coalition. Trailing him with 9 percent was the main opposition candidate, Gustavo Petro of the leftist Polo Democratico Alternativo.

Foreign Minister Noemi Sanin of the Uribe-allied Conservative Party won 6 percent and Liberal Party candidate Rafael Pardo, an early 1990s defense minister, got 4 percent.

Although generally peaceful, Sunday was marked by nearly two dozen clashes with leftist rebels that claimed the lives of three soldiers, a potent reminder that Colombia's half century-old conflict is far from resolved.

The continuing violence — and Mockus' lack of clarity on how he would deal with it — favored Santos, a 58-year-old a Cabinet minister in three administrations running for elected office for the first time,

In pre-election polls, he was in a statistical dead heat with Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants.

Those polls proved illusory.

"My sense is that many Colombians were drawn to Mockus, his appealing message and what he represented, but in the end were worried about (electing) a relative novice on security and foreign policy questions," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

Mockus committed several gaffes during the campaign that revealed his inexperience in international relations.

The outcome of the June 20 runoff "will depend largely upon the coalitions formed between the Santos and Mockus camps with the elections 'losers,'" said Arlene Tickner, a University of the Andes political scientist.

Vargas' supporters are expected to back Santos while Mockus gets the Petro and Pardo vote, she said. None of the losers immediately made an endorsement and it's unclear what Sanin voters will do.

Combat was reported Sunday in six regions and all three soldier deaths were blamed by the government on the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC. It had called on Colombians to boycott Sunday's vote but did not order people to stay off the roads, as it has done in rural areas in past elections.

As defense minister from 2006-2009, Santos helped knock the wind out of the FARC, Latin America's last remaining major rebel army. Authorities say it now numbers less than 9,000.

Mockus, 58, is a 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 scandals that have plagued the outgoing president, including domestic spying, extrajudicial killings by soldiers, and the awarding of agricultural subsidies to political cronies.

In Bogota, Cecilia de Gaitan, 75, said she cast her ballot for Mockus hoping he might begin to rid Colombia of its endemic corruption.

"It won't be easy but you have to vote with hope," she said. She had voted for Uribe in the past two elections but called his second term "disastrous" and said she considers Santos "capable, but more of the same."

Mockus distinguished 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 in three short months. Online, he the biggest number of Facebook and Twitter fans.

But many voters didn't think Mockus has what it takes to manage a country at war whose institutions remain threatened by cocaine-trafficking criminal bands.

"He surely is the most honorable of all (the candidates), but you don't run a government on utopian ideas," said David Lewinski, 37, a health-care supply business owner.

Lewinski said he voted for Vargas but would opt for Santos in a runoff.

Mockus' quirky past has been both a boon and a liability, depending on the voter. As university rector, he once mooned an auditorium full of unruly students. While Bogota mayor, he dispatched mimes into the streets to shame traffic scofflaws.

Santos followed a more traditional script, promising "Jobs, jobs and more jobs." He also sought to distance himself from the scandals plaguing Uribe's administration.

Santos, as defense minister, fired 27 officers after prosecutors accused soldiers 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.