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World News

Colombian election race starts, Santos favored

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

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

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 its 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 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 defence 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.

“The continuity of President Uribe’s policies are at stake,” said Santos, confirming his candidacy and rallying supporters. “We can’t re-elect him, but let’s re-elect democratic security, social cohesion and investor confidence.”

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.

Uribe is expected to back 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.

GOOD FOR DEMOCRACY

“A new presidential campaign is born,” former president Andres Pastrana said, hailing the court’s decision as evidence of the strength of Colombia’s institutions. “We have saved the constitution, we have strengthened democracy.”

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 in Colombia 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 Uribe’s broad policies, perhaps with more emphasis on social development.

Under the conservative 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.

Additional reporting by Javier Mozzo, Nelson Bocanegra and Luis-Jaime Acosta; editing by Patrick Markey and Todd Eastham

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