Colombia vote pits Uribe ally against ex-mayor

Sun May 30, 2010 10:30am IST

* Runoff between Santos and Mockus seen likely

* Front-runners vow continuity of Uribe's policies

* Colombians concerned over jobs, healthcare, education

By Patrick Markey

BOGOTA, May 30 (Reuters) - Colombians vote on Sunday for a successor to President Alvaro Uribe in an election pitting a veteran government minister from an elite family against an eccentric former mayor who vows to stamp out corruption.

The front-runners, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus, both promise to continue Uribe's security policies, but polls show neither can win the more than 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a June runoff.

A key U.S. ally in the region, Uribe steps down still popular after two terms dominated by his war against drug-trafficking rebels, and his pro-business approach that increased foreign investment five-fold since 2002. Uribe was barred by a constitutional court from seeking a third term.

Santos, one of Uribe's staunchest supporters, is tied in most polls with Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants and a former university professor who surged in support with a campaign against graft and "politics as usual." The two are also running close in opinion polls for the June 20 runoff.

The four other main candidates are far behind.

Mockus won support from young and urban voters by promising clean government and more education. Santos proved stronger in rural areas once battered by the country's long war.

"We believe we can really change the way we do politics," Mockus told supporters on Saturday.

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Their country safer, most Colombians are now more concerned with jobs, education and healthcare than violence, and many are weary of the scandals that marred Uribe's second term.

The next leader inherits better security and investment but also a slow economic recovery, a wide deficit, double-digit unemployment and a trade dispute with Venezuela, where socialist President Hugo Chavez is riled over U.S. influence.

"Uribe has given us back security, now we can concentrate on creating jobs, jobs and more jobs," Santos said.

Latin America's No. 4 oil producer and a top coal and coffee exporter, Colombia is enjoying a boom in energy and mining investment, but the next president must manage an influx of commodity dollars that will pressure the peso COP=RR.

Both front-runners say they will keep pro-market economic policies applauded by investors, and analysts see little long-term impact on the peso or local TES bonds whoever wins.

TURNAROUND UNDER URIBE

Once mired in fighting among paramilitaries, rebels and cocaine lords, Colombia enjoyed a dramatic turnaround under Uribe, whose own father was killed by FARC guerrillas.

Backed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid, Uribe sent troops to reclaim areas once under the control of armed groups, and kidnappings, bombings and massacres dropped sharply.

Poor infrastructure and a weak state presence still affect rural areas, where conflict forces peasants off their land and drug routes make Colombia the world's No. 1 cocaine exporter.

Many Colombians thank Uribe for making towns and highways safer, but his last four years were marked by scandals over corruption, investigations into soldiers killing citizens and charges state agents illegally wiretapped his opponents.

Alliances will be key in a second round. As head of Uribe's U Party, Santos will seek out the Conservative and Cambio Radical parties. Mockus, whose Green Party has few seats in Congress, claims the moderate, middle ground.

"There will be fierce competition for the backers of the other candidates," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Santos would count on strong backing in the Congress where his party is the largest political bloc, but Mockus could struggle to push through ambitious reforms with only a few seats in the legislature.

"Markets could experience a moderate sell-off in case Mockus is elected president on concerns over governability," Alberto Ramos at Goldman Sachs said in a report.

Santos, a U.S.- and British-educated economist whose great- uncle was president, points to his experience as finance, trade and defense minister. But some voters associate the former newspaper editor him with government scandals.

Mockus, whose beard gives him the air of a preacher, once dropped his pants as a university director to get the attention of unruly students. As mayor, he donned a superhero suit to inspire residents to follow civic rules.

The French-educated mathematician and philosopher was praised for his fiscal discipline and tough line on crime when he helped turn around once-chaotic Bogota. But critics say his meandering style and lack of national experience show he is not the decisive leader a country like Colombia needs. (Editing by Peter Cooney)

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