BOGOTA — Juan Manuel Santos was reelected president of Colombia on Sunday in the nation’s tightest presidential contest in two decades. The election was a referendum on Santos’s 18-month effort to end the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running conflict.
The right-wing challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, accused Santos of selling the country out to a ‘‘criminal’’ insurgency that is already on the ropes with 18-month-old Cuba-based peace talks.
Zuluaga was backed by Alvaro Uribe, a two-term former president whom many considered the true challenger. The campaign was the Andean nation’s dirtiest in years, with Uribe suggesting to his 3 million Twitter followers that Santos aims to convert Colombia into a leftist totalitarian state.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Santos was ahead, 53 percent to 47 percent for Zuluaga. He won the most votes in a five-candidate field in the election’s May 25 first round — getting 29 percent against 26 percent for Santos.
Bogota industrial designer Felipe Quintero said he voted for Zuluaga, a previously little-known former Uribe finance minister, because Santos is conceding too much to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the peace talks to end a half-century-old conflict that has claimed more than 200,000 lives.
‘‘They need to be punished, not to be rewarded with liberty’’ and seats in Congress, said Quintero. ‘‘They are murderers. Why are they going to get privileges when they have killed a lot of people and keep killing?’’
Zuluaga, 55, and Uribe accused the incumbent, grandnephew of a president from a Bogota clan that formerly owned Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, of offering impunity to the rebels. They set what appear to be near impossible condition for continuing the talks, demanding the guerrillas halt all hostilities and that some do jail time.
Santos, 62, has denied he would let war criminals go unpunished. And he is certainly no dove. As Uribe’s defense minister and then president, he helped professionalize Colombia’s US-backed military and wielded it to badly weaken the FARC, including killing its top three leaders.
The bulk of Colombia’s left endorsed Santos, a University of Kansas-educated economist and veteran of three Colombian presidential Cabinets before his own presidency.
Santos won important endorsements last week and regained some momentum. He got the backing of 80 top business leaders and announced exploratory talks with the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s other, far smaller rebel band.
Many believe Santos has steered Colombia to a historic crossroads at which it finally has a chance to become a ‘‘normal’’ nation. Beyond betting his future on peace, Santos has improved ties with the leftist governments of neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador, a sharp contrast to Uribe.
Yet the incumbent has a ‘‘severe likability and trust problem,’’ said analyst Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, and has been ‘‘unable to shake the image of an out-of-touch Bogota aristocrat who will promise everything and deliver little.’’
Bogota business consultant Maria Eugenia Silva, 47, cited a big reason many Colombians voted for Santos, despite his faults: Alvaro Uribe.
‘‘The eight years he was president were a time of some of the works corruption and biggest scandals,’’ she said. By remaining in power, Uribe would lessen chances he could face prosecution for alleged crimes including human rights violations.