Colombian president hints he will run for re-election in 2014
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos hinted on Friday that he would seek re-election next year to ensure continuity of his policies - including peace talks with Marxist FARC rebels - though he did not explicitly announce his candidacy.
"I want clearly and firmly to see that the government's policies continue after August 7, 2014," Santos said, referring to the date a new administration would take office.
"I want the peace policy re-elected, I want the housing policy re-elected, those that have reduced poverty - re-elected," he told reporters in Bogota.
Santos took the greatest risk of his political career last year by launching peace negotiations with the nation's biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the hope of ending five decades of war.
Talks have dragged on for almost seven months without reaching accord on the first of a five-point agenda, putting in doubt Santos' goal that the two sides will reach agreement this year.
Santos, 61, told reporters in Bogota that he would make a formal announcement on his re-election plans in a "written, solemn" way by the November deadline.
"I don't want the positive and deep changes that we are realizing to be left halfway down the road, or worse, to be reversed," said Santos, a former newspaper editor and scion of one of the nation's richest families.
"But I want to be respectful of the rules of play and so won't take a formal decision about my future until the required date."
Santos's presidential bid - and success - may hinge on the outcome of the FARC talks. An end to the conflict would seal his place in history as well as likely ensure his re-election. While failure to close the deal by the November deadline could sway him away from another term.
The government's battle against the FARC, Latin America's biggest and longest-running guerrilla insurgency, has killed more than 100,000 people, made vast swathes of land too dangerous to farm and forced millions from their homes.
It also has diverted billions of dollars from the economy as legitimate industry is unable to function at full capacity and the government is forced to spend heavily on troops and weapons.
All past attempts to negotiate peace with the FARC have failed and resulted in a stronger and more energized rebel army.
In a move popular with millions of Colombia's poor, Santos has sought to provide cheap housing to the most needy, offering 100,000 free homes and mortgages at rock bottom interest rates.
His housing minister, German Vargas Lleras, who led the free housing program, has resigned from the Cabinet, Santos also said on Friday, and will run a foundation that helped steer the president's election win in 2010.
Vargas Lleras could be a "Plan B" for Santos if he decides not to run for re-election, Senator Armando Benedetti wrote in his Twitter account. Vargas Lleras, who ran against Santos in 2010, is now considered a Santos ally, and his probable heir.
No replacement for Vargas Lleras was announced.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Eric Beech)