Colombia's Top Presidential Candidates Face Runoff

Colombians went to the polls Sunday to vote for their next president. The lead vote-getter was former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, who's viewed as the political heir of the current president. But he failed to get the majority needed to prevent a runoff with Antanas Mockus — an academic turned two-term mayor of Bogota.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to Colombia, where the outgoing president cracked down hard on rebel fighters. As Colombians went to the polls yesterday, a former defense minister was considered the favorite because of the tough roll he played in that crackdown. As it turned out, none of the candidates in a crowded field won a majority, and now he'll face a runoff against a philosopher and mathematician who won fame for the creative ways in which he governed the Colombian capital. From Bogot´┐Ż, NPR's Juan Forero reports.

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JUAN FORERO: The historic center of this old capital was more festive than usual on a sunny Sunday morning.

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FORERO: The cathedral full of worshipers. And in the main square, the Plaza Bolivar, some fed pigeons while children played. There were also long lines of voters casting ballots in an election considered historic, here and in Washington. Thats because Colombia has for eight years been ruled by a close U.S. ally, Alvaro Uribe. He's a tough rancher who used $6 billion in American aid to pummel the Marxist guerillas whove terrorized this country for decades.

His presumed successor has been Juan Manuel Santos. As Uribe's defense minister until last year, he landed some of the most decisive blows against the rebels.

His main opponent came as a surprise: Antanas Mockus, a two-term mayor of Bogota who wore a red and yellow spandex suit emblazoned with a capital C, for Super Citizen. Then he badgered unruly residents to behave.

Polls all this month show the two neck-and-neck.

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FORERO: Voting tables were set up under the porticos of government buildings facing the Plaza Bolivar. Many of those casting their ballots in the plaza said they admired Mockus and his pledge to fight corruption. But more of them said they went for the safe bet - the man who'd positioned himself as Uribe's natural heir.

Ms. MEME GOMEZ(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Meme Gomez, a 69-year-old housewife, says Santos is the continuation of Uribe and that to her, Uribe is excellent.

Though the voting was peaceful, troops and rebels clashed in isolated areas of Colombia. Three soldiers died - a reminder that the conflict that has marred this country is far from over.

Political analysts said that Mockus, who had just 1 percent support in January, was a phenomenon. He capitalized on scandals in the Uribe administration, including revelations that the intelligence service, under the president's control, followed his political opponents.

Mockus pledged honesty and an emphasis on social issues, and he said the constitution would be his Bible. Some polls even had him topping Santos.

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Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

FFORERO: The playing of the national anthem on Caracol Radio signaled the end of the day's voting. By the time all the votes had been counted early in the evening, Santos had nearly 6.7 million votes to Mockus' 3.1 million.

In past elections in Colombia, the loser in the first round has mustered the alliances needed to win in the second. And in speaking to his supporters, Mockus sounded a positive note, saying that topping the 3 million voter mark was a major accomplishment.

But Santos' lead was commanding. And Mockus now has the challenge of having to marshal millions of new supporters to win the final round on June 20th.

And when Santos finally spoke to his followers, he spoke as if the presidency was his.

Mr. JUAN MANUEL SANTOS (Presidential Candidate): (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. SANTOS: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He said his would be a government of inclusion, a government for all Colombians. And then, his supporters celebrated.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota, Colombia.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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