Popularity of Colombia's Santos edges up slightly

BOGOTA Fri May 3, 2013 2:04pm EDT

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during the inauguration of the 26th International Book Fair in Bogota April 17, 2013. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during the inauguration of the 26th International Book Fair in Bogota April 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/John Vizcaino

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BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' popularity recovered 3 percentage points, as people feel more upbeat about the outcome of peace talks with Marxist rebels and applaud a program to give homes to the poor, a leading pollster said on Friday.

Santos' popularity had been sliding since his government began negotiating a peace deal in November with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in a bid to end a five-decade war that has killed tens of thousands of people.

But his popularity is on the rise again, increasing to 47 percent according to a poll by Invamer Gallup, up from 44 percent in the last poll released in February.

"The president's popularity was helped by the peace process with the rebels, which has been revitalized, and because of the initiative to give houses to the poor," said Jorge Londono, the general manager of Invamer Gallup.

Some contend the best way to deal with the FARC is not through peace talks, but by stepping up the military strategy that has killed some rebel leaders and pushed the group deep into remote areas.

But support for the negotiations being held in Cuba increased to 67 percent, 5 percentage points more than in the previous poll, in part because Colombians are now more hopeful about the possibility of a peace deal.

In late March, the FARC and the government cited progress toward an accord on the key issue of agrarian reform.

Still, Santos' popularity has been hit by the slowing economy and social problems such as poverty and unemployment, especially in rural areas where some communities support the FARC, which is considered a terrorist group by Europe and the United States.

Santos in April launched a package of measures to stoke economic growth and late last year unveiled a program to build 100,000 houses and give them to poor families throughout the country of 46 million people.

"The housing program has become a hallmark for the Santos government and people are perceiving it as one of the best moves by the presidency," Londono told Reuters.

Invamer Gallup interviewed 1,200 people in the five largest urban areas of the country between April 17 and April 27. The poll has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

RE-ELECTION BID

Santos has been ambiguous about his plans to run for re-election in May 2014, but he must declare his candidacy six months before the vote.

Last month Santos signaled he may seek re-election, but only if he could stay in office for two more years, half the usual term. However, he later backtracked on the proposal without saying if he would still run for the usual four-year term.

Santos was elected in August 2010 by a landslide thanks in part to the support of his then-boss, former President Alvaro Uribe, who is now the de-facto head of the opposition.

While Santos came to power promising to maintain Uribe's tough stance against the FARC, the former defense minister took the biggest gamble of his political career when he began peace talks with the rebels.

Santos' popularity hinges on these ongoing negotiations, which he wants completed this year.

The last attempt to negotiate an end to the war in 1999-2002 ended in shambles, but the FARC has been weakened after a decade-long U.S.-backed government offensive.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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