BOGOTA — Colombians voted for continuity Sunday, electing former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos as the heir to the wildly popular President Alvaro Uribe. Santos, candidate of the U Party who promised to carry on Uribe's hard-line security policies, won 69 percent of the vote against 27.5 percent for Antanas Mockus, a former mayor of Bogotá who ran on the Green Party ticket promising a change in Colombia's corrupt political culture.
"The time has come for national unity, the time has come for harmony, the time has come for us to work together for the prosperity of Colombia,'' Santos told a crowd of cheering supporters gathered in a sports stadium in Bogotá.
Santos thanked Uribe, whom he called one of the "best presidents'' in Colombia's history. "This is also your victory, President Uribe,'' he said
Mockus congratulated Santos and his supporters. "I wish him success as a leader for the good of our country,'' he said in his concession speech.
Santos, who will be inaugurated Aug. 7, inherits Uribe's legacy of routing leftist rebels and boosting and investor confidence. Though a proud heir to those successful policies, Santos will have to effectively address the scandals of Uribe's administration involving extrajudicial executions, illegal wire taps on the opposition and vote buying, analysts say.
Weariness with those scandals initially stimulated support for Mockus.
"Santos is not going to be able to escape the scandals that marred Uribe's rule,'' said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think-tank Inter-American Dialogue. ``He'll have to take them on and take some distance from them.''
In a preelection interview, Santos stressed that that his government would have a different focus from Uribe's.
"More than a difference in policies, there will be a difference in priorities,'' he said.
There will also be a difference in management style. Uribe's folksy down-home manner won Colombians over. In weekly town hall meetings throughout the country, he would micromanage even the smallest problems presented to him. Santos, from an elite Bogotá family, is more of a delegator.
"I rely on teamwork,'' he said.
Santos, an economist educated at the University of Kansas, Harvard and the London School of Economics, is a member of the powerful clan that long controlled the leading newspaper El Tiempo. He has been minister in three administrations, holding the key posts of trade, finance and defense. As head of the trade post, he created the ministry and an export promotion agency and increased commerce with Venezuela. As finance minister, he managed the nation's recovery after a 1999 recession and as Uribe's defense minister, he oversaw some of the most paralyzing blows against leftist rebels for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
``That experience makes him uniquely positioned to address the major issues facing Colombia,'' said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas.
The death on election day of three soldiers in clashes with FARC rebels and seven police in an ambush by the National Liberation Army was a clear reminder that despite major gains in security, the rebel threat is still alive.
Santos declared in his victory speech that ``the FARC's time is up. Colombians know I know how to fight them.'' But while Santos has said he will keep up the pressure on guerrillas and drug trafficking, he identified the country's high unemployment -- at 12 percent Latin America's highest -- as a main concern for his government.
``My priority is employment and I want to push unemployment down to one digit,'' he said.
Santos said he would welcome Uribe as a close advisor to his government.
``It would be a huge help for me to have him as a counselor,'' he said. ``No one knows the country like he does.''
But Uribe's style strained ties with neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador which Santos says he hopes to repair.
Santos has said he would invite the Venezuelan leader and his leftist allies in the region to his inauguration.
``I aspire to have good relations with all our neighbors,'' he said.
Shifter said both Santos and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez are pragmatic and despite the heated rhetoric, the neighbors could see a thaw in relations.
``Santos' focus on the economy will include smoothing things over with Chávez,'' he said, but added that no one should expect ``a lot of warm abrazos'' between them.