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Colombia's Santos comes to power very popular-poll

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s President-elect Juan Manuel Santos will take over the Andean nation’s highest office more popular than the incumbent leader credited with a dramatic fall in violence, an opinion poll showed on Friday.

Colombia's President-elect Juan Manuel Santos gestures as he speaks in a meeting with Dominican Republic's president Leonel Fernandez during an official visit to the national palace in Santo Domingo July 29, 2010. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Colombia is much safer than when outgoing leader Alvaro Uribe took power in 2002, thanks to his U.S.-backed offensive against leftist guerrillas. His success against rebels and drug lords kept him popular and brought an uptick in investment.

Santos -- who takes office on August 7 and heads Uribe’s ‘U’ Party -- will become president with 76 percent of Colombians rating him as favorable -- one percentage point above his predecessor and Colombia’s most popular leader in history.

“We’re in the honeymoon phase because when there’s a change of government and a well-received government ends, that generates a lot of optimism in people,” said Jorge Londono, head of Gallup, which published its poll in local media.

Former Defense Minister Santos -- who won the most votes in Colombia’s history in June -- has broadly pledged to keep up the security and pro-business policies of Uribe and has benefited from the president’s strong rural support.

When Uribe came to power for the first of his two terms, Marxist guerrillas controlled large swathes of territory and could carry out attacks in major cities -- including a strike on the presidential palace in 2002.

But eight years later, the rebels are hemmed in to remote, rural areas of Latin America’s No. 4 oil producer -- and that has opened up new parts of the country to increased economic activity, improved Colombia’s image and kept Uribe popular.

The Gallup poll -- which interviewed 1,200 people across five big cities from July 16-24 -- found 52 percent said the country was getting better, versus 41 percent who said the same in February this year.

As Uribe prepares to step down, 80 percent of Colombians approve of the job he is doing. Speculation is rife about his political future post-presidency.

Half of Colombians said the country would continue getting better at the start of Santos’ administration.

Santos will inherit a feud with Caracas -- which has hurt trade worth billions of dollars a year -- over accusations by Uribe’s government that Venezuela harbors Colombian guerrillas -- charges that saw President Hugo Chavez break ties.

The spat has heightened tensions in the volatile Andean region where clashing ideologies, guerrillas and drug kingpins mix to create a mishmash of security problems.

The survey -- which took place when tensions with neighboring Venezuela were boiling -- showed 92 percent of Colombians had an unfavorable opinion of Chavez.

Santos, who takes power in eight days, is viewed as more pragmatic than Uribe, whose approach during eight years in office has been to address security first as a precondition for trying to improve ties with Chavez.