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Colombia election race starts, Santos favored

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The race for Colombia’s presidency began Saturday, with former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos the favorite after the South American nation’s popular incumbent was blocked from running for a third term.

The Constitutional Court’s decision to bar a referendum on re-election heralds an end to President Alvaro Uribe’s eight-year rule, during which the U.S. ally beat back left-wing guerrillas, stabilized the economy and drew investors.

With Colombian politics fixated for more than a year on the re-election issue, and polls showing Uribe would have won easily if allowed to run, Friday’s ruling represented a starting gun for other presidential aspirants.

“The campaign kicks off,” leading daily El Tiempo said.

“The happiest man in Colombia today is Juan Manuel Santos,” said one of his rivals in the May 30 presidential election, Gustavo Petro, of the leftist Democratic Pole party.

Uribe’s former defense minister -- who also held the finance portfolio in a previous government -- is closely associated with the U.S.-backed security policies that have made Uribe the nation’s most popular president, and helped Colombia escape its past image for violence and chaos.

Before the presidential vote, a March 14 parliamentary election will test the political waters, and a certain amount of realigning among Uribe’s ruling coalition is expected.

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Uribe backs Santos, who heads the president’s Social National Unity Party. But Uribe’s alliance partner, the Conservative Party, could put up its own candidate.

Sergio Fajardo, an independent candidate and former mayor from Colombia’s second city Medellin, is hovering behind Santos in the polls. And would-be Conservative Party candidate Noemi Sanin could be a challenger if the Uribe alliance splits.

Santos met Uribe in the city of Cali Saturday to plan their political strategy for the election.

“We are going to win,” Santos predicted. “I will find the way for this great coalition to have a single candidate.”


Analysts expect no candidate will win more than 50 percent of the votes in May, meaning there would be a run-off in June.

Colombia's former Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos gestures during an interview with Reuters in Bogota February 10, 2010. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Many hailed the court ruling as a sign of democratic maturity.

“This shows to the international community the civilized nature and respect for the law in this country,” said former president, Ernesto Samper.

On the streets, where the Uribe re-election saga has gripped Colombia’s 44 million people like a national soap opera, reaction was mixed. Some said it was right for the president to bow out, while others feared instability.

“It’s not a good thing because he was freeing us from the guerrillas, and I’m afraid the next one may ease up on that,” said Bogota housewife Amanda Bellos, 43.

Economists said the political transition could cause a short-term wobble in the peso currency and local TES debt markets. But they forecast long-term stability, with the next leader likely to follow the conservative Uribe’s broad policies, perhaps with more emphasis on social development.

Under Uribe, foreign money has poured back into Colombia, a top coffee exporter and Latin America’s No. 4 oil exporter.

“We expect to witness some level of political noise until the elections in late May (and a likely run-off in June) but do not expect the presidential transition to bring about a major change in the direction of investor-friendly macro and financial policies,” said Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos.

While keeping up the fight against Latin America’s oldest insurgency and Colombia’s money-spinning cocaine trade, the next leader will have to shepherd the nation out of recession and combat rising unemployment.

Washington’s envoy to Colombia, William Brownfield, said he expected good ties with the future government in the fight on cocaine trafficking and other ills. “We will keep collaborating with this government and the future government,” he said.

Additional reporting by Javier Mozzo, editing by Vicki Allen