Bogota: A once-tight presidential race threatened to turn into a rout on Sunday, with polls showing a huge lead for former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos.
Santos, who oversaw a major weakening of leftist rebels, had a 37-point advantage in pre-election polls over former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus, who was neck-and-neck with him in some surveys before a series of gaffes torpedoed his eccentric campaign.
Santos won 47 percent of the vote in the May 30 first round — just shy of the simple majority needed for victory. Since then, he has gained the endorsement of most of Colombia`s political establishment.
Santos, a 58-year-old economist, promises to build on the security gains of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, who remains hugely popular but was barred from seeking a third consecutive term.
The former defense chief also may benefit from the military`s recent rescue of three police officers and an army sergeant who had been held for nearly 12 years by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country`s main rebel band.
But he is also trying to broaden his appeal by vowing to help the poor in a nation notorious for income inequality, where more than four of every 10 of its 44 million people live on less than USD 2 a day.
"I`m going to give priority to the social aspect, to employment, to the fight against poverty since I don`t need to prioritize security," Santos told The Associated Press in a pre-election interview. Colombia`s annual per-capita social spending is about $400, less than half that of Mexico or Chile.
Mockus` clean-government campaign, a steamrolling sensation three months ago, lost its luster after he won just 21 percent of the vote in the first round.
The Green Party candidate, a former university rector and son of Lithuanian immigrants, made a series of comments that led Colombians to question his ability to manage the military and foreign relations of a country still mired in a half-century-old conflict with guerrillas.
Mockus at one point suggested Colombia should dissolve its military, then backtracked. He also suggested he would have no choice but to extradite Uribe if an Ecuadorean court convicted him of wrongdoing in a 2008 cross-border raid. In fact, presidents can deny extradition requests.
The mathematician and philosopher also alienated voters by promising a tax increase.
"The general sensation that he leaves is that he is not as well prepared to lead the country as Santos," said Andes University political scientist Arlene Tickner.
Being a political outsider was Mockus` strength — but also proved his weakness, said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington think tank Inter-American Dialogue.
"He challenged politics as usual but also needed to play the political game to build support. He wasn`t willing or able to do that," Shifter said.
Santos, who was educated in the US, is a Colombian political blueblood despite making his first run for elected office. He was a Cabinet minister in three administrations and is a great-nephew of a president whose family long ran the country`s leading newspaper, El Tiempo.
Santos may have benefited politically from a government welfare payment program called Accion Social that grew under Uribe from 320,000 recipient families to 2.2 million.
But Santos said no one can prove a gain in votes for him or other candidates from his National Unity party — which dominated March 14 legislative elections — resulted from Accion Social`s growth.
"People are very grateful — above all in the most poor sectors — that we have decreased the violence, from which the poor suffer most," he said. Indeed, Santos has polled better among Colombia`s poor than its rich.
As Uribe`s defense minister in 2006-09, he helped knock the wind out of the FARC, Latin America`s last remaining major rebel army. He also clashed often with leftist Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.
Last month, a judge in Ecuador ordered Santos` arrest for authorizing the 2008 cross-border raid on a FARC base inside Colombia`s southern neighbor that killed the rebel group`s No 2 commander, Raul Reyes.
Santos called the arrest warrant absurd because the Colombian state — not him individually — carried out the raid.
He said it wouldn`t prevent him from visiting Ecuador as president if invited. Further, Santos said he would invite Chavez and the Venezuelan leader`s leftist allies to his Aug. 7 inauguration if he won the presidency.
"We`re going to invite all the countries with which we have relations. I want good relations with all our neighbors," Santos said.