June 20 (Reuters) - An anti-guerrilla crusader and an eccentric mathematician face off in Sunday’s election to take over from incumbent President Alvaro Uribe in Latin America’s No 4 oil producer.
Polls show former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos poised to win the run-off vote against Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus and continue with Uribe’s security and free-market platform.
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The wealthy son of one of Colombia’s most powerful families, Santos, 58, is the consummate political insider, a U.S.- and British-trained economist whose great-uncle, Eduardo Santos, also served as president. His cousin is the current vice president.
Santos is a staunch ally of Uribe and promises to keep up military pressure on leftist FARC guerrillas. He benefited from Uribe’s popularity to win by a wide margin in a first-round vote that many pollsters had expected Mockus to lead on the back of corruption and spy scandals that tarnished the government.
Santos was editor of the country’s top newspaper before moving into politics. He has held several posts in recent governments, including finance minister.
As defense minister under Uribe, Santos oversaw the military campaign that largely drove the leftist FARC rebels into remote hill and jungle regions -- major victories included the dramatic rescue of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt along with three U.S. defense contractors held hostage by the guerrillas.
He was also in charge of a bombing raid in Ecuadorean territory that killed the FARC’s No. 2 commander -- a huge blow to the rebels but also damaging to Colombia’s relations with neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela.
Lacking the natural charisma of his predecessor, Santos paid the political price for scandals under Uribe that include numerous extrajudicial killings of innocent citizens by the army.
But he revamped his campaign and won a May 30 first round easily, thanks in part to large numbers of people voting in newly safe rural areas where Uribe is most popular.
The son of Lithuanian artists, Mockus, 58, was married in a circus tent and is as famous for his outlandish behavior as he is for helping Bogota shed its reputation as a violent, chaotic capital.
He sports a beard that recalls Abraham Lincoln, quotes philosophers Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard in meandering speeches and has a penchant for dressing in a spandex costume as “Super Citizen” during his two terms as Bogota mayor.
Such antics are tame compared with his years as the rector of Colombia’s National University, when he once urinated from a balcony and bared his backside to a rowdy crowd in the university’s auditorium.
Despite the quirks, the French-trained mathematician and philosopher won the respect of many Colombians by helping bring order to Bogota, known in the early 1990s for car bombings by drugs gangs, kidnappings and drive-by murders.
By the end of his second term in 2003, homicide rates had dropped, a modern public transport system had eased congestion and the city was fiscally sound.
Mockus surged in popularity during the first-round campaign and many voters say he presents an alternative to the Uribe administration, popular for gains against leftist rebels but rocked by a string of human rights and corruption scandals.
He is popular among young Colombians and has effectively used Internet services such as Twitter and Facebook to spread his message. Mockus is the candidate of Colombia’s recently founded Green Party, but his campaign has focused on clean politics rather than environmental issues.
Earlier this year, Mockus announced he had Parkinson’s disease, but that his illness was at an early stage and would not affect his work. His ratings continued to rise after the news. But he has also suffered from what even he calls his “own goals” giving confusing answers on key questions such as relations with Venezuela and frankly calling for tax raises.
Reporting by Bogota newsroom, Editing by Sandra Maler