Santos Re-Elected Colombian President on Peace Talks Pledge

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won a second four-year term in elections yesterday, gaining a mandate to push ahead with talks aimed at ending 50 years of fighting with Marxist guerrillas.

Santos, 62, a former journalist who studied at the University of Kansas, won 51 percent of the runoff vote against 45 percent for opposition leader Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. Four percent of electors cast “blank votes.” The new term of office starts on Aug. 7.

Santos spoke to supporters after his victory with a white dove on his lapel and the word “peace” written on the palm of his hand. The government has held talks in Cuba with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, since 2012, seeking a deal to end a conflict that has cost 200,000 lives. Zuluaga had said he would take a tougher stance, pledging a “full-frontal assault on terrorism.”

“This was essentially a referendum on the peace negotiations, and that’s what determined Santos’ triumph,” Laura Wills, director of Visible Congress, a Bogota-based group that promotes political transparency, said in a phone interview. “This is a vote of support for the progress that’s been made in the talks.”

Negotiators are half-way through their six-point agenda with the FARC, having reached agreements on giving land to poor farmers, the rebels’ participation in politics and anti-drug policy.

Santos’s supporters waved Colombian flags and chanted “Peace! Peace! Colombia wants peace,” after the election results were announced.

‘Much Greater’

“Colombians of very different convictions, including many who didn’t support my government, mobilized in support of the cause of peace,” Santos said. “Without the weight of the conflict on our shoulders, Colombia will be much greater.”

Zuluaga, an ally of former President Alvaro Uribe, had demanded tougher conditions before he would negotiate with the FARC, including a unilateral cease fire.

In Havana, the two sides will next discuss reparations to victims of the conflict, the end of the conflict, and the implementation of the deals. None of the agreements will take effect until a full peace deal is signed that ends hostilities.

Yesterday’s victory means negotiators will try to reach a deal in time for former guerrilla leaders to campaign in elections for mayors and provincial governors in October 2015, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“They’ll need to get this wrapped up in about a year from now, so that they can have everything legally approved and have their candidates on the ballot,” Isacson said. “That’s the last election until 2018.”

Soccer Win

The Colombian soccer team’s 3-0 victory over Greece in the World Cup on June 14 probably helped the incumbent, generating a mood of national optimism, said Sandra Borda, a professor of politics at Bogota’s Andes University.

The country’s economic performance also helped. Gross domestic product grew 4.3 percent last year, outpacing Brazil, Mexico and Chile, while the 2.9 percent inflation rate is the lowest among major Latin American economies. Santos’s term in office saw a sustained drop in the jobless rate, to 9 percent in April from 12.2 percent in the same month in 2010.

Colombia’s dollar bonds have returned 25 percent since Santos took office in August 2010, after receiving investment grade from Standard & Poor’s, Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service in 2011. The benchmark Colcap index returned 8.6 percent over the same period.

Medellin-based electricity company Isagen SA rose 8.4 percent to 3,180 pesos at 8:34 a.m. in Bogota, the biggest jump since 2009 on a closing basis. Zuluaga had opposed the government’s sale of its 57.6 percent stake in the company.

Santos’s U Party, the Radical Change Party and the Liberal Party, which all supported Santos during his first term, won 92 out of 166 seats in the Lower House, and 47 of 102 seats in the Senate, in congressional elections in March. That’s enough to allow Santos to pass a peace deal, Wills said.

“Even though a final agreement hasn’t been reached, this is a clear mandate for peace from voters,” Wills said. “He’ll probably have ample legislative backing.”

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