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War takes a backseat

BOGOTA, Colombia — Since Colombia’s presidential campaign kicked off, polls have predicted that none of the six candidates will get more than 50 percent of the vote, the threshold required for victory in the May 30 first-round election.

A survey in today’s El Tiempo, for example, shows Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister, on top with 35 percent followed by Antanas Mockus, a former Bogota mayor, with 34 percent. If the poll is accurate, the two candidates would meet in a June 20 runoff.

But the most intriguing data in the survey deals with voter priorities.

The top four issues are unemployment, universal health coverage, education and the poor quality of hospitals and clinics. Rolling back guerrilla violence, which had been the most pressing concern during the past three presidential elections, is now issue No. 5.

These results reflect the triumphs and failures of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe. They also help explain why Santos, who has been endorsed by Uribe and was the early frontrunner, is now enmeshed in a tight race.

Uribe won two elections by promising an all-out war on Marxist guerrillas. Kidnappings and murders dropped and the improved security led to an economic boom. But the expansion in GDP and foreign investment failed trickle down very far or make much of a dent in the unemployment and poverty rates. In addition, Uribe is leaving behind a nearly bankrupt public health system.

In the urban areas, which are home to about 70 percent of Colombian voters, pocketbook issues now trump security — and that’s taken some of the wind out of Santos’ sails.

As a highly praised defense minister, Santos would have had a huge advantage had the guerrilla war remained the No. 1 concern. Instead, as a symbol of the Uribe administration, Santos often finds himself on the defensive over the government’s many failings, including a series of corruption scandals.

Mockus, by contrast, stands for many voters as a fresher face and a symbol of clean and competent government.

There’s still a good chance Santos will receive the presidential sash from Uribe on Aug. 7, the swearing-in date. But for now, the El Tiempo poll indicates that a runoff between Santos and Mockus would be too close to call.