BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s governing party and allies won a majority in Sunday’s congressional elections in a test of the country’s political pulse before a May presidential vote to succeed the U.S. ally.
Uribe’s U Party and Conservative Party secured most seats in the Senate, according to partial tallies. But tight results between the allies may split the coalition if candidates from both parties run in the presidential election on May 30.
The conservative leader remains popular after taking the fight to FARC guerrillas and drug traffickers. Colombia’s war has ebbed and investment this year should reach $10 billion from $2 billion when Uribe first came to power in 2002.
The solid showing by Uribe’s U Party on Sunday benefits Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister who is ahead in opinion polls and says he is the candidate to continue Uribe’s fight against rebels from the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
But Santos does not have the support to avoid a second round in June, and the close result in Congress could convince Conservatives to ignore a Santos proposal for a unity candidate and run their own presidential bid in the first round in May.
“The U Party, the party of President Uribe, has won,” Santos said in a speech to supporters. “These results consolidate us once again.”
Uribe’s U Party won 27 seats in the 102-seat Senate, the Conservative Party won 24 and the opposition Liberal Party 18 seats, according to initial results from election officials.
The U Party and the Conservative Party together also won the most votes for the 166-seat lower house of parliament, according to preliminary tallies on the electoral agency Website. Full results were still trickling in.
Uribe’s alliance, made up of his U Party, the Conservative Party, Cambio Radical Party and a group of smaller parties, held a majority of 68 seats in the Senate and a 107-seat majority in the lower house before Sunday’s vote.
“Former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos seems to be the best positioned candidate,” Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos said. “The fact that Mr Santos’ party was the most voted might facilitate a political alliance in Congress with other parties that supported the Uribe administration.”
But Cambio Radical has already distanced itself from the government and its own candidate, veteran lawmaker German Vargas Lleras, is campaigning for the presidency.
The Conservative Party — a key alliance member — also held its internal election on Sunday to decide a presidential candidate, which could splinter the coalition if the winner decides to face Santos rather than support him.
The two favorites are Noemi Sanin, a former defense minister who promises to run on her party’s ticket, and Andres Felipe Arias, an Uribe ally who had said he would consider a unity candidate with the U Party.
But a strong Conservative showing could prompt him to run in the first round. Arias was edging ahead of Sanin in the ballot, according to partial results.
Colombia’s election race heated up in February when a court ruled Uribe could not run for a third term. But any candidate to replace him likely will adhere to his popular security and investment policies in Latin America’s No. 4 oil producer.
Investors see any successful candidate offering continuity and see little impact on Colombia’s peso currency or local TES bonds. The peso has appreciated 24 percent against the dollar over the last 12 months.
Guerrillas often dominated past elections with bombings, kidnappings and attacks. But Sunday’s vote went ahead with little violence, a sign of the success of Uribe’s U.S.-financed campaign against Latin America’s oldest insurgency.
The next government will need a majority in Congress to push through health reforms and changes to the pension and tax systems and rigid financial transfers to regional administrations — matters key to tackling Colombia’s fiscal deficit.
During Uribe’s second term, the Congress was caught up in a scandal tying dozens of lawmakers to paramilitaries who smuggled drugs and massacred peasants in the name of counter-insurgency before disarming under his government.
The PIN Party, an alliance that included relatives of former lawmakers jailed in the scandal, on Sunday won eight seats and became the fourth largest force in the Senate.
Violence and kidnapping from the war has dropped sharply, but a report by the national ombudsman said illegal armed groups had still been a risk to voting in a third of Colombia’s more than 1,000 municipalities.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Stacey Joyce