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Colombians re-elect Santos in boost for FARC talks

Colombians re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos in a cliffhanger poll seen as a referendum on peace talks with FARC guerrillas, election authorities said.

BOGOTA: Colombians re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos on Sunday in a cliffhanger poll seen as a referendum on peace talks with FARC guerrillas, election authorities said.

With 99.37 per cent of votes tallied, the centre-right Santos registered 50.90 per cent of the vote, compared with 45.04 per cent for the more conservative Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. Another 4.07 per cent were blank protest votes.

Santos, 62, who governs in a coalition with some leftist parties, has led efforts to reach a peace deal the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); Zuluaga has called for stricter conditions as a pre-requisite to any deal.

Santos cast his ballot shortly after polls opened, with Colombians still euphoric over their national team's 3-0 World Cup victory on Saturday over Greece.

"On this day that is so important, big things are being decided for the future of our country," Santos said.

The bid to end Latin America's longest guerrilla war has emerged as the central issue of the run-off, which descended into mudslinging between the two candidates.

Zuluaga, 55, has long been opposed to the peace talks and campaigned under the slogan "No to impunity." But he now has said that he would negotiate with the rebels under stricter conditions.

After voting, he promised "to work, from the closing of the polls, for a negotiated peace, without hate or rancour."

Santos argued that Colombians must choose between "the end of the conflict, or an endless conflict."

The internal war, with its violent cocktail of rebels, paramilitary militia and criminal gangs, has left more than 220,000 people dead and forced five million to leave their homes over the past half century.

In the first round of balloting on May 25, Zuluaga gained 29 per cent of the vote against 26 per cent for Santos.

A runoff was necessary since neither won more than 50 per cent of the vote, and pre-election surveys had shown no clear winner.

Both Santos and Zuluaga were cabinet ministers under the hardline former president Alvaro Uribe, who served from 2002 to 2010 and remains a powerful political force.

Santos was Uribe's defence minister, known for an aggressive military campaign that mauled the FARC and killed key rebel leaders.

But Uribe - who is also a senator-elect - threw his weight behind Zuluaga, his former finance minister, even calling Santos a traitor for negotiating with the rebels.

After voting, Uribe said he wanted "a country with security and peace."

Santos has rallied leftist parties by promising to spend more on social welfare issues.

His campaign website says that the "cost of the war" with the leftist rebels is nearly US$300 - the minimum monthly wage in Colombia - per second.

Even though the economy is growing more than four per cent a year, one-third of Colombia's 47 million residents live in poverty.

"Social issues are more visible but they remain linked to peace, which the president has kept as the central pillar of his campaign," said political scientist Patricia Munoz Yi from Javeriana University in Bogota.

Once ahead in opinion polls, Santos slipped as both sides accused the other of espionage and corruption.

The peace process, recently expanded to also include the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, would collapse with a Zuluaga victory, said Vicente Torrijos, a political scientist at the Universidad del Rosario.

Founded in the 1960s, the ELN and the FARC are the last leftist guerrilla armies operating in Colombia. They boast 2,500 and 8,000 fighters respectively.

Talks in Havana with the FARC that began in November 2012 have resulted in agreements on three topics of a six-point agenda.

But at least three major issues remain unresolved: the surrender of weapons, compensation for victims, and how a final agreement would be ratified.

Zuluaga's conditions for talks with the FARC included a permanent guerrilla ceasefire and jail time for its leaders.

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