In a strong show of support for peace negotiations with leftist rebels, Colombians gave President Juan Manuel Santos a solid reelection victory against a former finance minister Sunday.
With nearly all ballots counted, Santos had 50.9% to Oscar Ivan Zuluaga's 45%, a 900,000-vote advantage out of 15 million cast, according to Colombia's electoral commission. Santos will take the oath Aug. 7 for another four years in office.
"Today unity triumphed," Santos told supporters in a victory speech. "Millions of countrymen have shared our dream to exchange fear for hope. What was in play was not a candidate, but the direction of the country. It's the moment to end this Colombia president's reelection victory seen as endorsement of peace talks withlong and cruel conflict."
Gesturing to a dozen young people holding cutouts of white doves onstage, he said: "These will be the children of a generation of peace."
The election hinged on voters' perceptions of the peace talks, now underway in Havana, which aim to end 50 years of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, through a negotiated settlement. Government and rebel negotiators so far have reached a framework agreement on only four of six negotiating points and the talks have lasted much longer than Santos promised.
Voicing the concerns of many Colombians, including his patron, former President Alvaro Uribe, Zuluaga denounced the talks during the campaign as conceding too much to the rebels. He said he opposed giving the FARC automatic representation in Congress and impunity for past crimes, two likely prerequisites for any final deal.
Those concerns propelled Zuluaga, the candidate representing the Democratic Center party, ahead of Santos in the first round of voting May 25. In the Sunday runoff, however, the incumbent rode to victory on a surge of support in the capital, Bogota, reversing his poor first-round showing there.
"The election is a resounding endorsement of Santos' historic peace precess in the country's tightest election in decades," said Bruce Bagley, an international relations professor and Colombia expert at the University of Miami. "It is also a major setback for the implacable opposition led by Uribe, and for Uribe personally."
Santos was aided by crucial endorsements for his peace initiative from Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla, as well as from former Mayors Clara Lopez and Enrique Penalosa. The president also received support from several labor union, business and academic groups after his first-round finish.
"From a political standpoint, the election became a plebiscite on the Havana peace process, for a political settlement versus a continuation of the conflict," said Hernando Llano, a political science professor at Javeriana University in Cali. "Electorally, Santos won with a much stronger showing in Bogota with the help from moderate leftists Clara Lopez and Petro."
About 45% of 33 million eligible voters cast their ballots Sunday, a low turnout but greater than the 40% in the first round. Roughly 4% of those who voted left their ballots blank in a show of distaste for both candidates.
The low turnout may have been a reaction to the exceptionally dirty tone of the campaign. The Santos camp accused Zuluaga of employing a computer hacker to break into emails of the presidential staff, and the Zuluaga campaign accused Santos officials of accepting millions in campaign donations from drug traffickers.
In his concession speech, Zuluaga congratulated Santos, thanked Uribe for his support and said his campaign faced many disadvantages, including the "state machinery" that the president was able to mobilize to get out the vote.
"The struggle will continue," Zuluaga told supporters at campaign headquarters in Bogota.
Kraul is a special correspondent.