BOGOTA (Reuters) - Former Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos easily won a first-round presidential vote on Sunday that puts him in a strong position in a June runoff to succeed U.S. ally President Alvaro Uribe.
Santos, a Uribe supporter and scion of an elite family, won 47 percent of the votes, well ahead of former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus, who with 22 percent became Santos’ rival for the June 20 second round, according to election results.
A staunch Washington ally, Uribe steps down in August still popular after two terms dominated by his war against drug-trafficking rebels, and his pro-business approach that attracted foreign investment especially in oil and mining. He was barred by a constitutional court from seeking a third term.
The surprise showing by Santos, who campaigned as the heir to Uribe, will likely be applauded by Wall Street as an affirmation of Uribe’s security and economic policies. But his win may fuel tensions with neighbouring Venezuela where President Hugo Chavez brands Santos a threat.
“This is your victory President Uribe, and for all of us who want to defend your enormous legacy,” Santos told cheering crowds, dressed in a white shirt with his U Party logo.
A U.S.- and British-trained economist, Santos fell just short of the more than 50 percent of votes needed to clinch outright victory. But his wide lead and political party machinery will give him a clear advantage over Mockus.
Santos, led early in the race, but Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants who is also an eccentric former university professor, had surged with a Green Party campaign against corruption and “politics as usual.”
“We have a real chance with this second round to achieve a deep cultural change,” Mockus said to cheers of “Yes we can,” at his Bogota headquarters, a slogan popularized during U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign.
Polls show Colombians now more concerned with joblessness, education and healthcare than waning guerrilla violence, and many became weary of the scandals over human rights and corruption that blemished Uribe’s second term.
Santos successfully re-engineered his campaign and focussed on jobs, while Mockus hit a ceiling in support after gaffes in presidential debates. Some view him with uncertainty in a country still struggling to end a guerrilla conflict and locked in a trade dispute with Venezuela.
Mockus once dropped his pants as a university director to get the attention of unruly students. But the French-educated mathematician was praised for his fiscal discipline and tough line on crime when he helped turn around once-chaotic Bogota.
“Many Colombians were nervous about supporting such a relative novice on security and foreign policy issues,” said Michael Shifter at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “Basically the election is Santos’ to lose.”
Alliances could be key in a second round. As head of Uribe’s U Party, Santos will seek the support of the Conservative and Cambio Radical parties. Mockus, whose Green Party has few seats in Congress, will seek support from the centre.
In third place was Cambio Radical’s German Vargas Lleras, a former Uribe ally, with 10 percent, who has said he would back Santos. He was followed by leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, who has flirted with a Mockus alliance, with 9 percent.
Both front-runners say they will keep Uribe’s tough security and pro-market economic policies applauded by investors, and analysts see little long-term impact on the peso or local TES bonds whoever wins.
A Santos government would count on strong backing in the Congress where his U Party is the largest party, but Mockus’ small backing in Congress means he could struggle to push through ambitious reforms.
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 Chavez is riled over U.S. influence.
Latin America’s No. 4 oil producer and a top coal and coffee exporter, Colombia is enjoying a boom in energy and mining investment, but the next president must manage an influx of commodity dollars that will pressure the peso.
Once mired in fighting among paramilitaries, rebels and cocaine lords, Colombia enjoyed a dramatic turnaround under Uribe, whose own father was killed by FARC guerrillas.
Backed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid, Santos oversaw Uribe’s campaign to reclaim areas under the control of armed groups, and kidnappings, bombings and massacres dropped sharply, although Colombia remains the world’s No. 1 cocaine exporter.
Many Colombians thank Uribe for making towns and highways safer, but his last four years were marked by scandals over corruption, investigations into soldiers killing citizens and charges that state agents illegally wiretapped his opponents.
Additional reporting by Jack Kimball, Luis Jaime Acosta, Nelson Bocanegra and Javier Mozzo; Editing by Peter Cooney