Ex-defense minister takes commanding lead in early returns from Colombia’s presidential vote

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Santos takes big lead in Colombia’s president vote

BOGOTA, Colombia — Early results in Colombia’s presidential runoff elections give a commanding lead to Juan Manuel Santos, who as defense minister struck crippling blows against leftist rebels.

With 10 percent of the vote counted, Santos has 69 percent of the votes against 28 percent for former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus, an eccentric outsider and Green Party candidate.

In the first round last month, Santos fell just shy of the simple majority needed for victory.

Mockus had catapulted into early contention but stumbled with a series of gaffes that had Colombians questioning his abilities.

Violence marred Sunday’s vote as seven police officers and three soldiers were killed in separate attacks blamed on leftist rebels.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombians voted in a presidential run-off Sunday that was expected to be a rout favoring a former defense minister who oversaw a major weakening of leftist rebels.

Juan Manuel Santos had a 37-point advantage in pre-election polls over political outsider and former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus.

In the May first-round vote, Santos fell just shy of the simple majority needed for victory after a series of gaffes torpedoed Mockus’ eccentric campaign.

Violence marred Sunday’s vote as seven police officers and three soldiers were killed in separate attacks blamed on leftist rebels.

The police were killed when a roadside bomb ripped apart their truck on a routine patrol in Colombia’s northeast, said Gen. Orlando Paez, the national police operations director.

The soldiers died in an ambush on an army patrol carrying election material in Puerto Lleras in the eastern plains, Defense Minister Gabriel Silva said. He blamed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country’s main rebel band. The smaller National Liberation Army was believed responsible for the roadside bombing, Paez said.

The independent Electoral Observation Mission said rebels burned ballots and disturbed voting in isolated municipalities in eight of Colomia’s 32 states.

Voter turnout was down an estimated 11 percent from the May 30 vote amid heavy rains across much of the country and the distraction of World Cup football, Colombia’s National Electoral Council reported.

The persistence of the rebel threat was a central issue in the campaign to succeed two-term, conservative President Alvaro Uribe.

“Security. Security,” said Bogota clothing factory owner Humberto Botero, 52, explaining his vote for Santos. “He’s a statesman. He’s someone who knows the country, who knows how to surround himself with talent.”

Santos, a 58-year-old economist who served previous Colombian administrations as finance and foreign commerce minister, won the endorsement of most of the country’s political establishment after the first round of voting.

Santos also may benefit from the military’s rescue a week ago of three police officers and an army sergeant who were held for nearly 12 years by the FARC.

He promises to build on the security gains of Uribe, who remains hugely popular but was barred from seeking a third consecutive term. But he is also trying to broaden his appeal by vowing to help the poor in a nation notorious for income inequality where more than two in five of its 44 million people live on less than $2 a day.

Mockus’ clean-government campaign was a steamrolling sensation three months ago and those who voted for him Sunday praised his refreshing honesty and promise to rid Colombia of the endemic corruption that he says is at the root of its half-century-old civil conflict.

“He seems to me a peaceful man,” said Elsa Torres, a 66-year-old homemaker who voted in Bogota before heavy downpours discouraged voting. “As he says, he’s on the side of culture and education. Those things are important for me because they are what we lack at the moment.”

Mockus, the Green Party candidate and former university rector, won just 21 percent of the vote in the first round.

His campaign led many Colombians to question his ability to manage the military and foreign relations of a country still mired in a half-century-old conflict with guerrillas.

At one point, he suggested Colombia dissolve its military, and then backtracked. He also suggested he would have no choice but to extradite Uribe if an Ecuadorean court convicted him of wrongdoing in a 2008 cross-border raid. In fact, presidents can deny extradition requests.

The mathematician and philosopher also alienated voters by promising a tax increase.

“Mockus simply isn’t of the stature to be president and manage a country as complex as Colombia,” said Diego Munoz, a 36-year-old street vendor who voted for Santos.

Santos, a University of Kansas graduate, is a Colombian political blue blood despite making his first run for elected office. He is a great-nephew of a president whose family long ran the country’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo.

Santos may have benefited politically from a government welfare payment program called Accion Social that grew under Uribe from 320,000 recipient families to 2.2 million.

As Uribe’s defense minister in 2006-09, he helped knock the wind out of the FARC, Latin America’s last remaining major rebel army, overseeing the bloodless ruse that rescued from FARC captivity presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 others.

He also clashed often with leftist Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

Last month, a judge in Ecuador ordered Santos’ arrest for authorizing the 2008 cross-border raid on a FARC base inside Colombia’s southern neighbor that killed the rebel group’s No. 2 commander, Raul Reyes.

Santos called the arrest warrant absurd because the Colombian state — not he individually — carried out the raid.

He said it wouldn’t prevent him from visiting Ecuador as president if invited. Further, Santos said he would invite Chavez and the Venezuelan leader’s leftist allies to his Aug. 7 inauguration if he won the presidency.

“I want good relations with all our neighbors,” Santos said.

Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia and Nancy Lopez contributed to this report.

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