BOGOTA (Reuters) - Millions of Colombians voted on Sunday for a successor to President Alvaro Uribe with a veteran minister who waged war on guerrillas and an eccentric former mayor the two front-runners likely to head to a June run-off.
Top candidates ex-Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos and two-time Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus promise to maintain Uribe’s security policies and create jobs, but polls show neither will gain the majority needed to avoid a second round.
A key U.S. ally in the region, Uribe steps down still popular after two terms dominated by his war against drug-trafficking rebels, and his pro-business approach that increased foreign investment five-fold.
Colombians packed into polling stations across the Andean country and a few police helicopters hovered overhead after one of the country’s most peaceful campaigns.
Santos, a staunch Uribe supporter, has faced unexpected competition from Mockus, who once dropped his pants as a university director to get the attention of unruly students. Mockus’ support surged with a Green party campaign against graft, and the two are now tied in polls.
“The country needs what we’ve had until now — firmness so we don’t fall into the hands of the weak,” said Manuel Gomez, 42, a car washer who voted for Santos in Bogota.
Santos and Mockus are also running close in opinion polls for a likely June 20 rematch.
With a sunflower, the constitution and a pencil as his symbols, Mockus won support from young and urban voters by promising clean government and education. Santos proved stronger in rural areas once battered by the country’s war.
“Just like Colombians have recovered our security, now the priority is to overcome all illegality,” Mockus said in a column in El Tiempo newspaper Sunday.
With a fall in violence over the last eight years, most Colombians are now more concerned with jobs, education and healthcare than the conflict, and many are weary of the scandals that marred Uribe’s second term.
The next leader inherits better security and investment but also a slow economic recovery, a wide deficit, double-digit unemployment and a trade dispute with Venezuela, where socialist President Hugo Chavez is riled over U.S. influence.
“When you vote you have to think about yourself, you have to think about jobs,” said construction worker Carlos Rengifo.
Latin America’s No. 4 oil producer and a top coal and coffee exporter is enjoying a boom in investment, and the next leader must manage an influx of dollars. Analysts see little long-term impact on the peso or local TES bonds whoever wins.
Alliances will be key in a second round. As head of Uribe’s U Party, Santos will seek out the Conservative and Cambio Radical parties. Mockus, whose Green Party has few seats in Congress, claims the moderate, middle ground.
Santos would count on strong backing in the Congress where his party is the largest bloc, and Mockus may struggle to push through ambitious reforms with only a few seats.
Poor infrastructure and a weak state presence still affect rural areas, where conflict forces peasants off their land and drug routes make Colombia the world’s No. 1 cocaine exporter.
Backed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid, Uribe sent troops to reclaim areas once under the control of armed groups, and kidnappings, bombings and massacres dropped sharply.
Fighting, however, continues in remote jungle and mountain regions, and 340,000 soldiers and police were dispatched on Sunday to prevent attacks that have marred previous elections.
“We’ve had more than 60 years of violence,” said Carmen de Molano, a woman in her 60s, at a polling station in Bogota. “I don’t believe things are going to change.”
Additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra, Frank Jack Daniel, Jack Kimball and Luis Jaime Acosta, editing by Alan Elsner