Colombia’s former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who opposes the government’s peace talks with Marxist rebels, led the first-round of presidential elections and will face incumbent Juan Manuel Santos in a runoff.
The opposition candidate, an ally of former President Alvaro Uribe, won 29.3 percent of the votes with 99.9 percent of polling stations reporting, ahead of Santos on 25.7 percent. To avoid a second round on June 15, a candidate would need to garner more than 50 percent.
The opposition candidate has repeatedly attacked the government’s negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, demanding that the guerrillas declare a unilateral cease-fire and serve time in jail. Santos says Colombia has never had a better chance of ending the conflict.
“In three weeks, Colombians can chose between those who want an end to the war, and those who want a war without end,” Santos, 62, said in a speech after the result. “We’re going to show that there’s a majority who want to end a conflict that has caused half a century of pain and blood.”
A second round victory for Zuluaga would bring the peace process to an end, said Alejo Vargas, professor of political science at the National University, in a phone interview from Bogota. His lead in the first-round “shows there’s an important part of society that doesn’t back the Havana talks.”
Zuluaga, 55, pledged “a full-frontal assault on terrorism”, and said “The President of the Republic can not and should not be manipulated by the FARC, today the biggest drug cartel in the world.”
While the contenders disagree on how to deal with the FARC, Zuluaga supports many of the economic policies followed by Santos, such as free trade, a rule to curb the government’s ability to run deficits, and an independent central bank.
Colombia expanded 4.3 percent last year, the fastest pace among major Latin American economies after Peru, and the urban jobless rate fell during every year of Santos’ government.
“Both candidates are perceived as business-friendly leaders who, if elected, would sustain the orthodox and disciplined policies that have greatly benefited the Colombian economy over the last decade,” Goldman Sachs analyst Tiago Severo said in a in May 21 research report.
The campaign was marked by accusations on both sides and described as the “dirtiest” in decades by Elisabeth Ungar, director of Transparency for Colombia, a Bogota-based anti-corruption group.
The Attorney General’s office arrested Zuluaga aide Andres Sepulveda on May 5 and accused him of illegally intercepting e-mails in an attempt to sabotage the peace talks.
Santos said his rival was running a “criminal campaign” after Semana, Colombia’s biggest news weekly, released a video clip this month of Sepulveda showing Zuluaga information on FARC negotiators, which he said he obtained from military intelligence. The Attorney General’s office said the clip was authentic, while Zuluaga says the video was doctored.
Santos’ re-election campaign suffered its own scandal when Javier Calle, who was designated a drug “kingpin” by President Barack Obama and is in a U.S. jail, accused political strategist Juan Jose Rendon of taking money to act as an intermediary between cocaine cartels and the government, according to Semana columnist Daniel Coronell.
Rendon denied taking drug money and resigned from Santos’ campaign team on May 5, two days after Coronell published his column.
Zuluaga’s lead in the first-round will weaken Santos’ ability to negotiate with the FARC over the next month.
Santos “loses strength to negotiate,” Ungar said. “If the talks are suspended we probably won’t see them again for the next 10 to 15 years.”
(An earlier version of this story was corrected to say Alvaro Uribe is former President.)