Former Defense Minister Wins Colombia’s Presidency

BY Larisa Epatko  June 21, 2010 at 3:04 PM EDT


Juan Manuel Santos. Photo by Luis Ramirez/LatinContent/Getty Images

Colombia’s former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos handily won the country’s top office in a run-off presidential election on Sunday, promising to continue a security campaign against leftist rebels and to broaden economic reforms.

He garnered 69 percent of the vote to best his political rival, former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus, and take office in August.

Earlier in the race, the candidates appeared neck-in-neck based on opinion polls, but a first-round vote on May 30 saw Santos lead Mockus by about 25 percentage points. The two candidates entered a runoff since neither received 50 percent of the vote.

Santos’ win on Sunday was a foregone conclusion, based on his strong showing after the first-round vote, but what was surprising was the size of his victory, said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“What’s notable is the 69 percent he got was even higher than what (former President Alvaro) Uribe got when he was re-elected in 2006, so the shear size of the mandate is quite impressive,” said Arnson. “It shows that [voters] were looking to consolidate and continue the gains on the security front made during the two Uribe administrations.”

Santos based much of his campaign on the promise of continuing Uribe’s security measures against FARC rebels. He also spoke of cultivating ties with the United States and said he wanted Colombia to take an active advisory role in hemispheric security matters, particularly combating the drug trade.

The message that Colombia has something to offer the world in terms of its own example of fighting terrorism and narcotrafficking also appealed to many voters, said Arnson. “Colombia has historically been a very insular country. And the alliance with the United States — Colombians understood how unpopular that was throughout South America, and now the fact that Colombia is helping Mexico in combating its drug trafficking violence is something that I think is of some pride.”