Colombia vote: Will Juan Manuel Santos be the next president?

In Sunday's Colombia vote former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos consolidated his position as front-runner for the presidency after his “U” party dominated congressional elections.

By , Correspondent

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    Columbia vote: Former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos is the front-runner in the election this week in Colombia.
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Former Colombian defense minister Juan Manuel Santos consolidated his position as front-runner for the presidency after his “U” party dominated Sunday’s congressional elections.

The party led by Mr. Santos, who claims to be the legitimate heir to President Álvaro Uribe’s eight-year presidency, showed itself as the strongest political force. The congressional election is seen as a key indicator of how Colombians will vote in the May 30 presidential election.

Mr. Uribe, who has enjoyed approval ratings of more than 60 percent throughout his presidency, mostly for pushing back Marxist guerrillas, is barred from seeking a third term after a constitutional court ruling last month.

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“The Colombian people have spoken clearly and they want those policies [of Uribe] to continue,” Santos told local radio Monday.

Uribe allies win firm control of Senate

With 93 percent of the votes counted, the parties that formed Uribe’s conservative coalition were projected to jointly win firm control of the 102-seat Senate.

A scandal involving links between legislators from the Uribe camp and right-wing paramilitary groups did not appear to have harmed the government parties in the vote. In fact a new party known as PIN, which included many friends and relatives of former lawmakers investigated for working with right-wing paramilitaries, was projected to win as many as eight senate seats.

Opposition parties fared relatively poorly in Sunday’s vote, with the traditional Liberal Party winning the same 18 seats it now has in the Senate. The center-left Polo Democratico dropped from 11 seats to only eight.

More 'Uribism' without Uribe

“Under that perspective we are going to have more ‘Uribism’ without Uribe,” political analyst Carlos Guzman told Semana magazine, adding that Santos may even have been strengthened enough to win in the first round in May, avoiding a run-off election. A poll in February showed Santos had 23 percent support followed by the Polo Democrático candidate Gustavo Petro with 11 percent.

But to do so, he will have to have the firm backing of the candidate of the Conservative Party, which voted in open primaries on Sunday as well. However, logistical problems have postponed the final count until next Saturday, with the two top contenders Noemí Sanín and Andrés Felipe Arias in a dead heat.

Interior Minister Fabio Valencia Cossio on Monday asked election officials to speed up the count because delays “generate serious political tensions and casts doubt on the whole process."

Depending on who wins the Conservative Party candidacy, Santos will have a harder or easier time in forming a coalition before the first round presidential vote. Ms. Sanin has said she would stand in the first round while Mr. Arias has said he would seek alliance with Santos and other parties.

Santos said that no matter the outcome of the party primary he hopes whoever wins will “reflect on maintaining the great Uribe coalition.”

Sunday’s elections were among the most peaceful in recent memory with only isolated actions by leftist rebels. However, independent election observers said there were allegations of widespread vote-buying allegations, and voter intimidation.

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