Colombia's president, challenger head to runoff

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Associated Press

Posted on May 25, 2014 at 6:10 PM

Updated Sunday, May 25 at 10:10 PM

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga finished first in the opening round of Colombia's presidential election Sunday, delivering a blow to President Juan Manuel Santos' re-election bid but failing to win the majority of votes needed to avoid a runoff ballot in three weeks against the incumbent.

With nearly all polling stations counted, Zuluaga had 29 percent of the votes, compared to 26 percent for Santos. Conservative Party candidate Marta Lucia Ramierz was in third of the five-candidate field with less than 16 percent.

Relentless attacks in the campaign's final stretch and the arrest of an adviser on charges of spying appeared not to have eroded support for Zuluaga, who had emerged as Santos' toughest challenger thanks to the backing of his one-time boss and mentor, the still-popular former President Alvaro Uribe.

Despite all the advantages of running as an incumbent, Santos limped to the finish line Sunday. One powerful ally, Sen. Roy Barreras, told The Associated Press that the second-place finish came like a "bucket of cold water."

Santos framed the runoff a battle between the "past and future," foreshadowing what is likely to be a bitter showdown in the June 15 second round over the future of the current peace talks with Colombia's biggest rebel movement and the conservative Uribe's polarizing legacy for a no-holds-barred military offensive against the guerrillas.

"The choice is between those of us who want to put an end to the war and those who want a war without end," Santos told supporters in Bogota, who responded with shouts of "Peace for Colombia!"

As Uribe's defense minister and now president, Santos is credited with handing the rebels some of their biggest battlefield defeats, but he made the peace negotiations initiated 18 months ago with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the centerpiece of his campaign.

Concerns that rebel leaders, on the ropes after a decade-long U.S.-backed offensive, will not be punished for any crimes have been fueling mistrust of the negotiations. Although Zuluaga said he also favors a negotiated settlement, he's also threatened to end talks, saying that if elected he would give FARC negotiators a week to demonstrate their commitment to peace by declaring a permanent cease-fire.

But those policy differences were largely swamped in the past two weeks by a string of bitter attacks and startling revelations.

It began with media reports that Santos' campaign manager, J.J. Rendon, received $12 million from the nation's biggest drug traffickers to help negotiate their surrender. Rendon quickly resigned after acknowledging he interceded in the case, though he denied taking any money.

Meanwhile, Zuluaga's campaign came under fire after a computer expert who worked for him was arrested for allegedly hacking into the emails of the president and FARC negotiators.

Zuluaga denounced the arrest as a desperate ploy to derail his campaign. But the emergence of a clandestinely shot video in which Zuluaga listened as the computer expert outlined his strategy to undermine the peace talks cast doubt on the candidate's claim that he had no knowledge of the consultant's alleged activities.

The tensions came to a head in a feisty exchange at a televised debate where Santos accused his rival of being Uribe's "puppet" and Zuluaga fired back: "You must show me respect."

None of the three other candidates were able to capitalize on the last-minute feuding. It apparently did disgust many voters, however. Only 40 percent of the 33 million eligible voters bothered to cast ballots, producing Colombia's lowest turnout in at least four decades.

Bogota-based political analyst Pedro Medellin said that for Santos to pick up lost ground to Zuluaga, he will have to tack further to the left.

One place the president is already looking is the Democratic Pole party, one of the strongest supporters of a peace talks and whose presidential candidate, Clara Lopez, finished a whisker behind Ramirez.

But signing a peace agreement didn't even rank among the top five concerns of voters in a recent Gallup poll, and in focusing on the talks Cuba, Santos risks losing support among many working class Colombians who haven't benefited as much from the country's recent economic boom.

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Associated Press writers Camilo Hernandez, Libardo Cardona and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman

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