Former long-shot and Uribe ally scores upset in Colombia’s first-round presidential election

Former Finance Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga won Sunday’s presidential election, setting the stage for a contentious June 15 runoff against President Juan Manuel Santos.

With 99 percent of voting tables counted, authorities said Zuluaga had won 29.3 percent of the vote followed by Santos with 25.7 percent.

Polls had been predicting a tight race but few gave Zuluaga the lead he clenched Sunday, where he beat Santos by more than 400,000 votes.

In his victory speech, he asked Colombian’s to vote for change in three weeks and attacked Santos’ signature achievement — peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas taking place in Cuba.

“We cannot allow the FARC to run this country from Havana,” he said. “The president cannot and should not be manipulated by the FARC, which is the world’s largest drug cartel.”

Santos on Sunday predicted success in the runoff.

“Thanks to the millions of citizens who support us and who are going to multiply in the runoff,” he told supporters.

Santos also invited Zuluaga to join him in debating the issues rather than making personal attacks. “It’s what the country is asking for,” he said.

Trailing in the polls were former Defense Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez with 15.5 percent, and former Bogotá mayors Clara López with 15.2 percent and Enrique Peñalosa with 8.3 percent.

The National Police said the election was one of the most peaceful in decades, with only five election-related detentions. It was also marked by a high abstention rate, with only 40 percent of registered voters casting a ballot.

Just a few months ago, Zuluaga, 54, was running far behind despite having the support of popular former President Álvaro Uribe. But as he became more combative, taking Santos, 62, to task over the negotiations in Cuba, he rose in the polls.

That message was particularly potent in the United States, home to 183,000 Colombian voters. There, Zuluaga won 58 percent versus Santos’ 15 percent.

At the center of the election is the future of the talks, which began in Havana in November 2012.

Negotiators have already agreed on three of the six points of the peace plan, and Santos wants to stay the course. The deal is being hammered out behind closed doors, but the administration says it will submit the finished plan to voter approval.

Zuluaga has warned that peace may come at too high a price. In particular, he has rejected suggestions that FARC commanders who are facing murder, kidnapping and drug-trafficking charges might avoid jail time. He’s also railed against proposals for guerrilla leaders to play a role in politics.

On Sunday, Santos said the runoff in three weeks would provide a stark choice between “those who want the end of the war and those who want war without end.”

He also invited the supporters of his defeated rivals to join his “crusade for peace.”

Zuluaga said he would work for peace “but one that only benefits Colombians.”

Both López and Peñalosa have actively supported the peace process and some analysts believe they will throw their support behind Santos. On Sunday, both candidates – whose combined votes represented more than 23 percent of the electorate – said they will be meeting with their parties in coming days to plot their next move.

But Zuluaga’s tougher tone resonates with many who fear the Cuba talks might not be the best way to end more than 50 years of civil conflict that has claimed some 220,000 lives.

German Sanabria, a 60-year-old Bogotá cab driver, said he wants peace but misses Uribe’s more combative approach against the FARC.

“The peace process is okay,” he said. “But Uribe wanted to wipe them off the face of the map.”

Zuluaga’s win was more impressive because it came after being hounded by scandals.

At issue is a video that emerged last week that seemed to show Zuluaga receiving classified information from a computer specialist on his staff. The information — purportedly gleaned from U.S. and Colombian military sources — centered on the FARC negotiators in Havana.

Zuluaga claims the video is a fraud and part of a Santos’ dirty trick campaign. But on Friday, the attorney general’s office declared the tape “authentic and original.”

Carlos Julio Lemoine, the president of the Centro Nacional de Consultoria polling firm, had predicted the video wouldn’t hurt Zuluaga’s chances.

As the votes came in Sunday, Lemoine said the scandal might have actually boosted Zuluaga’s campaign.

“I think it helped him in the sense that he could play the role of victim — that this was a trap, an ambush,” Lemoine said. “And that helped undermine President Santos.”

On Sunday, Zuluaga said he would concentrate on the issues, like security, eduction and the economy, but didn’t fear more attacks.

“The stones they throw at me I will pick them up to build a Colombia that’s different,” he said.

In a sense, the second round pits two of Uribe’s political stars against each other.

Santos forged his political reputation as Uribe’s hard-nosed minister of defense. When he won the presidency in 2010 it was largely with the promise to continue Uribe’s policies. Soon after taking office, however, he launched secret talks with guerrillas and restored diplomatic ties with Uribe’s arch enemy, late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Uribe went from ally to foe, launched the competing Centro Democratico party, and pushed Zuluaga, his loyal finance minister, into the political spotlight.

The battle between one-time allies and cabinet members is expected to be as vicious as any family spat.

“This isn’t going to be pretty,” Salud Hernández, a political analyst, told Caracol television. “This will be a dirty war and about money and more money.”

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