Zuluaga wins first round of Colombia election

Two conservatives – current president Juan Manuel Santos and Oscar Zuluaga – will face off again in a runoff in June.

Thirty-three million Colombians were registered but voter turnout was less than 41 percent [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]

Bogota, Colombia Oscar Zuluaga, a far-right candidate who opposes peace talks with leftist rebels, has won the first round of Colombia’s presidential election with more than 29 percent of the vote.

He will face current President Juan Manuel Santos, who took 25 percent of Sunday’s vote, in a run-off election on June 15 as neither of the rightist candidates was able to secure a majority in the first round.

Thirty-three million Colombians were registered to vote and turnout was low, less than 41 percent.

International observers from UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, said the vote was “well organised” and security had “been guaranteed”.

Zuluaga and Santos share the same ideas on economic policy, but disagree sharply on the prospect of peace with FARC rebels. Negotiations came to be the defining issue of a campaign marked by scandals from both leading camps.

Santos has been negotiating with the guerrillas in Cuba to end Colombia’s long-running civil conflict which has claimed more than 215,000 lives. Zuluaga, following in the footsteps of his key backer, former hard-line President Alvaro Uribe, doesn’t believe in the talks, favouring a military solution instead.

“We have the opportunity to create a different Colombia,” Zuluaga posted on Twitter, thanking voters for their support.

A ‘relative unknown’

Lena Sanchez Rodriguez, who cast her ballot in Bogota’s main square, said she wasn’t happy with Santos’ record on security. “The office of the president has gotten weaker in the last four years,” she told Al Jazeera. “Santos doesn’t have a strong enough hand to deal with delinquents. Security has gotten worse in Bogota and I don’t believe in the peace process.”

Mariana Giraldo, an accountant voting in a working class district of the capital, said she supported Santos because she believes a peace deal with FARC guerrillas is possible.

“My life has gotten better economically in the last five years,” she told Al Jazeera. “If there was a peace deal, we would have more diplomatic agreements with other countries and it would be easier to travel.”

Two months ago, pollsters predicted an easy victory for Santos, as Colombia’s economy has grown quickly. Zuluaga was a relative unknown before Uribe’s support thrust him into the national spotlight.

Uribe, who ruled for two terms, remains a popular and divisive figure for his harsh tactics in the counterinsurgency campaign and alleged links to far-right paramilitary groups. It remains unclear if his influence and financial clout will be enough to push Zuluaga into the presidential palace, as three other candidates all garnered significant support and could potentially back Santos in the runoff.

Marta Lucia Ramirez, a conservative businesswoman, and leftist Clara Lopez each won more than 15 percent of the vote. Former Bogota mayor Enrique Penalosa took less than 8 percent of the vote in a poorer than expected showing.

Ramirez, in particular, is likely to be courted by the two leading candidates ahead of the runoff, as many voters rejected the status quo.

“We need to have some changes here,” Emma Julia Albarracin told Al Jazeera after casting her ballot in central Bogota.

“We have had too many bad governments that allowed corruption to happen,” she said, adding that “We don’t expect major changes.”