Colombian peace talks push President Santos' popularity higher

BOGOTA Wed Oct 31, 2012 4:51pm EDT

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos walks during a news conference at a hospital in Bogota October 6, 2012. REUTERS/Fredy Builes

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos walks during a news conference at a hospital in Bogota October 6, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Fredy Builes

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BOGOTA (Reuters) - President Juan Manuel Santos' popularity shot up 7 points to 58 percent thanks to Colombians supporting his peace talks with Marxist rebels to end five decades of war, according to an opinion poll published on Wednesday.

Yet while most are in favor of talks, more than half believe they will ultimately fail, according to the Gallup poll, painting a tricky picture for Santos as their success would almost assure him a second term if he decides to run in 2014.

"There is a bipolarity, or schizophrenia if you will. There is obviously a desire for peace, a desire to end the war, but this is the fourth attempt at negotiations with FARC," Jorge Londono, general manager of Gallup in Colombia, said.

"People are more aware that it's not going to be easy."

After Santos' popularity fell below 50 percent earlier this year for the first time since coming to power in a landslide in 2010, the former defense minister has seen his approval ratings steadily rebound since announcing talks with rebels in August.

Negotiations were formally launched on October 18, but the talks immediately got off to a rocky start after guerrillas said they wanted to discuss a range of topics not specifically mentioned in the five-point agenda.

Santos' government has ruled that out, saying issues not listed in the agenda, especially rebel demands for foreign mining companies to stop operations, would not be negotiated.

The survey was conducted with 1,200 telephone interviews in five major cities on October 20-26, and the margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points. Critics say polls leave out rural Colombians, who are more affected by the war.

The Gallup study found that while 72 percent supported negotiations with the FARC, only 39 percent believed they would actually succeed.

Every past attempt to reach a negotiated end to the war since the FARC's founding in 1964 has ended in failure.

The guerrillas were widely seen as having used previous negotiations to rearm and rebuild their ranks. Right-wing elements linked to Colombia's political establishment were also accused of undermining talks.

DRUGS, CANCER AND CONFLICT

Santos' popularity received a slight boost from a crackdown on criminal gangs that included the arrest of a major trafficker in Venezuela, as well as the president's surgery for prostate cancer, Londono said.

The 61-year-old Santos came to power promising to keep up the tough stance against rebels and drug gangs of his predecessor Alvaro Uribe when the conservative president launched an all-out offensive with U.S. aid in 2002.

Uribe, who helped clinch the presidency for Santos, has since become his biggest critic, especially on security.

In the Gallup poll, three-fourths disapproved of how Santos was handling security problems. Other major gripes were about his policies related to unemployment and living costs.

While Colombia has seen a boom in oil and mining investment over the last decade that spurred economic growth, the country is still one of the world's most unequal places, especially in rural areas. Inequality is one of the key drivers of the war.

Rural development is the first item on the agenda for peace talks set to start in Cuba on November 15.

Santos' government has said there will be no ceasefire until a final deal is reached, rejecting a FARC call for a truce.

More than 50 guerrillas have been killed since the negotiations were announced more than two months ago. Rebels on Monday killed six police officers in the volatile Cauca province.

(Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Eric Beech)

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