BOGOTA -- Colombians voted Sunday to give President Juan Manuel Santos four more years to clinch 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 to 45 percent for former Finance Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga.
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 the ongoing peace talks in Havana with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
After he plowed through a crowd of supporters and white-clad children waving cutouts of doves, Santos said he was determined to clinch 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.”
Santos upset Zuluaga, 54, who had won the May 25 first-round election by three points and had been leading in some polls before Sunday’s balloting.
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 Álvaro Uribe, who led the country from 2002 to 2010, and has become a harsh critic of Santos.
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 at gunpoint to vote for Santos.
Observers did not echo those allegations. And the Ministry of Defense and other officials said the election was largely peaceful. The only report of election violence emerged from the northern state of Chocó, 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 reelection on being the only candidate who could guarantee the continuity of peace talks with the FARC, which began in late 2012. Last week, he doubled down by announcing that the ELN rebel group — the country’s second-largest — might also seek an agreement.
Zuluaga, however, 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 preconditions for the talks to continue.
As Zuluaga insisted that he wanted “peace with conditions,” Santos accused him of being a warmonger willing to scuttle the talks.
In the end, Santos’ narrative seems to have won.
“I didn’t vote for Santos because I like him,” said Aura Cecilia Páez, a 45-year-old schoolteacher in Bogotá. “This was a vote for either war or peace, and we’re all tired of war.”
Jaime Lima, a 43-year-old Bogotá 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 rang loud. He won 76 percent of the vote to Santos’ 22 percent — albeit with a low turnout.
While Sunday was a vote of confidence for the peace process, Santos may 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 final peace deal will also require approval in a national referendum, where Uribe, Zuluaga and their Centro Democrático 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, free homes and made allies 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 had served as his defense minister, 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 pumped almost $9 billion in military aid into Colombia since 2000, helping break the back of guerrilla violence.
But the White House has also praised the peace process with the guerrillas, which both nations consider a terrorist organization.
The vote is also likely to calm Colombia’s neighbors. Zuluaga had said he would take a much more combative stance against violations of free speech and human rights in Venezuela and Ecuador. Since taking office in 2010, Santos has mended ties with those countries, 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 a ballot. Nationally, about 48 percent of Colombia’s 33 million voters went to the polls.
John Zapata, 38, of Bogotá 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.”