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In a vote for peace talks, Colombians re-elect Santos as president

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombians decided Sunday to give President Juan Manuel Santos four more years to complete his signature project — a peace deal with the nation’s guerrillas that might end a half century of civil conflict.

With 99 percent of the vote counted, Santos had won 51 percent. Former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga won 45 percent.

Months of whiplash polls and bitter recriminations boiled down to a difference of about 900,000 ballots in a race that was largely seen as a referendum on ongoing peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana.

Santos said he was determined to achieve a peace deal.

“This is the end of more than 50 years of violence in our country and the beginning of a new Colombia with more freedom and social justice,” said Santos, 62. “It’s a Colombia that will be at peace with itself.”

The vote was something of an upset for Zuluaga, 54, who had won the May 25 first-round election by 3 percentage points and had been leading in some polls.

In his concession speech, Zuluaga accepted the results but said he had battled a candidate who had “all the machinery of the state” in his favor. He also called on the administration to listen to the almost 7 million people who voted against it.

“We’ve waged a battle full of ideas, proposals and dreams for Colombia,” he said. We “demand a voice in creating the policies around a negotiated peace.”

Zuluaga became a contender on the back of popular former President Alvaro Uribe, who led the country from 2002 to 2010 and has become a harsh Santos critic.

On Sunday, shortly after he voted, Uribe said the election was tinged with “sadness” because the FARC and criminal gangs had been “threatening to massacre Zuluaga’s voters” and forcing people to vote for Santos at gunpoint.

Observers didn’t echo those allegations. And Ministry of Defense and other officials said the election was largely peaceful. The only report of election violence was in the northern state of Choco, where National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas burned two vehicles and intimidated voters. There were also reports of at least 141 voting irregularities.

Santos staked his re-election on being the only candidate who could guarantee continuity of peace talks with the FARC, which began in late 2012. Last week, he announced that the ELN— the country’s second largest rebel group — might also seek an agreement.

Zuluaga tapped into national unease about what might be lost at the bargaining table. He accused Santos of making too many concessions and he demanded that the FARC cease all hostilities as a condition of continued negotiations.

As Zuluaga insisted that he wanted “peace with conditions,” Santos accused him of being a warmonger willing to scuttle the talks.

“I didn’t vote for Santos because I like him,” said Aura Cecilia Paez, a 45-year-old teacher. “This was a vote for either war or peace and we’re all tired of war.”

Jaime Lima, a 43-year-old jeweler, also said he was a reluctant Santos voter.

“I would rather have a flawed peace process than a perfect war,” he explained.

In the United States, home to 183,000 registered Colombian voters, Zuluaga’s message got through He won 76 percent of the vote vs. Santos’ 22 percent — albeit with a low turnout.

While Sunday was a vote of confidence for the peace talks, Santos might not have smooth sailing during the next four years, warned Maria Luisa Palomino, an analyst with the Eurasia Group. As his government seeks legislation that will give the peace talks shape, “he will face a hostile Congress” and the opposition led by Uribe, who recently won a senatorial seat, she said.

A peace deal would also require approval in a national referendum, where Uribe, Zuluaga and their Centro Democratico party might try to derail it.

On Sunday, Santos asked for his rivals’ support.

“We’ve heard your message,” he said. “This will not be peace with impunity, this will be peace with justice.”

Santos will also enter his second term burdened with election promises. As his candidacy seemed to falter, he offered jobs and free homes, and made alliances with a wide range of unions, leftist movements and progressive political parties that are likely to demand rewards.

In many ways, Uribe was a central figure in Sunday’s vote. Santos was his minister of defense and Uribe firmly backed his candidacy in 2010. But as Santos renewed ties with Venezuela and began exploring a negotiated peace deal, Uribe became his biggest critic — founding a separate political party and promoting Zuluaga to challenge Santos.

The election brings stability to one of the United States’ staunchest regional allies. The U.S. has sent almost $9 billion in military aid to Colombia since 2000.

But the White House has also praised the peace process with the guerrillas, whom both nations consider terrorists.

The vote is also likely to calm neighbors. Zuluaga had said he would take a much more combative stance against human-rights and free-speech violations in Venezuela and Ecuador. Since taking office in 2010, Santos has mended ties, even as he was criticized for turning a blind eye to abuse.

Despite the white-knuckle nature of Sunday’s race, less than half of eligible voters cast ballots. Nationally, about 48 percent of Colombia’s 33 million voters went to the polls.

John Zapata, 38, decided to take his family to church instead of vote. He said he was tired of the mudslinging and didn’t believe in either candidate.

“They’re both the same,” he said. “so it doesn’t really matter who wins.”

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