BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Colombian opposition candidate Óscar Zuluaga led President Juan Manuel Santos in elections Sunday, but they now face a runoff vote in a crucial campaign for peace talks with Marxist rebels.
With 96 percent of ballots counted, Zuluaga had 29.2 percent of the votes compared to 25.5 percent for Santos, both failing to get the outright majority needed to avoid the June 15 second round.
Santos has presented the election as a referendum on his center-right government’s 18-month-old negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
But Zuluaga, who has the support of former conservative president Álvaro Uribe, has vowed to take a harder line against rebels.
As he cast his vote early in Bogotá, Santos said the election “strengthens our democracy, our institutions and regardless of the winner we will continue on the right track towards peace.”
Zuluaga, who voted in northern Bogotá, said voters were choosing “what kind of country we want.”
Once ahead in opinion polls, Santos lost his advantage in recent weeks and the two rivals were running neck-and-neck in the end amid mudslinging.
They led a field of five candidates, with conservative Marta Lucía Ramírez in third place with 15.6 percent.
With the FARC calling a ceasefire during the vote, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said it was the “safest election day in recent history.”
Monitors from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) said the election was carried out “absolutely normally.”
Allies turned rivals
Santos and Zuluaga were once Cabinet colleagues under Uribe (2002-2010), but are now bitter rivals and have clashed repeatedly in a campaign marred by espionage and corruption allegations.
Santos, 62, worked as defense minister under Uribe, whose aggressive military campaign led to the killings of key FARC leaders.
But Uribe, who remains popular, threw his weight behind Zuluaga, his former finance minister, going as far as calling Santos a traitor for negotiating with the rebels.
The former president reiterated his support for Zuluaga as he cast his vote, saying he chose the best candidate “to retrieve the path of security abandoned by the current government.”
Zuluaga, 55, has called for the peace negotiations to be suspended until the rebels give up their weapons.
Santos, in power since 2010, has made ending the conflict the centerpiece of his re-election bid, campaigning on a slogan which offers voters a stark choice: “War or Peace.”
The contrasting viewpoints were evident among voters.
“We need a peace accord,” said 20-year-old student María Paula Erazo.
That way the government could “invest in Colombia’s other problems, like health and education,” she said.
But one Zuluaga supporter Henry Gallán, a 58-year-old security equipment salesman, said his candidate would ensure there was “peace without impunity, not what Santos has done.”
“His betrayal of the previous government is unforgivable,” he said.
The peace process, hosted by Cuba, seeks to end a conflict that has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced more than five million since it erupted in 1964.
“The main issue between the two candidates is the peace process. Santos wants to finish what he started, while Zuluaga’s precise intentions are unknown,” said Yann Basset, a political scientist at the University of Rosario.
“It’s unclear if he’s going to terminate negotiations or try to continue them on different terms.”
The talks have so far led to agreements on rural reform, the participation of former guerrillas in politics and the battle against drug trafficking.
Santos has refused to call a ceasefire during the peace talks in order to keep up pressure on the guerrillas.