BOGOTA - Voting got under way in Colombia Sunday to choose a successor to President Alvaro Uribe, with the popular conservative leader's pick -- ex-defence minister Juan Manuel Santos -- favored to win.
Polls are forecasting that Santos will draw more than 60 percent of the vote, compared to about 28 percent for his rival, former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus of the Green Party.
Uribe served two consecutive terms, from 2002; the constitutional court rejected his bid to seek a third straight term. That has helped rally his supporters around Santos, who is representing the conservative Social National Unity party.
The conservative, staunch US ally leaves power with an approval rating of more than 70 percent, largely on the back of his tough "democratic security" policies. These amount to aggressively taking on the leftist insurgencies that have destabilized the country for more than four decades.
At 57, Uribe remains hugely popular with Colombians whom he has urged to "keep (Colombia) on course" by keeping in place "democratic security" measures while encouraging foreign investment.
So Santos' goal has been made abundantly clear: in his own words "to keep in place the legacy of Uribe, the best president Colombia has had."
Santos heads into a runoff with a broad lead, after winning the first round May 30 with 46.6 percent of the vote against 21.5 percent for his rival, former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus, 58, of the Green Party.
And on the route to the runoff, Santos has locked up the support of the Conservative Party and right wing Radical Change, both part of Uribe's ruling coalition.
Polls forecast he will draw more than 60 percent of the vote, compared to about 28 percent for Mockus.
The former Bogota mayor, Mockus, a math professor who famously mooned crowds in the past -- has urged Colombians who might stay away from the polls to turn out, and support him.
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But it is an uphill battle, National University political analyst Alfredo Rangel said.
"If (Mockus) could not get people to turn out for the first round, which was a relatively tight race, he most likely will do even less so in the second round," Rangel told AFP.
Colombia, which shares borders with five other countries and where at least 7,500 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels are active alongside thousands of paramilitary forces hungering for a piece of the cocaine trade, seems keen on maintaining continuity, experts say.
The insurgents have been hard hit in recent years by operations organized by the outgoing president and by Santos, who stepped down last year to campaign for the presidency.
Santos, a familiar figure whose lengthy government resume includes stints as commerce and treasury minister, has vowed to pursue the policies of the highly popular outgoing president.
In a country where 46 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line, Santos has made commitments to reduce the endemic problems of unemployment and under-employment, including a promise to create 2.5 million jobs in four years.
Colombians also associate Santos with several successful military campaigns, such as the attack against a FARC encampment in Ecuador in March 2008 that killed the group's number two Raul Reyes and Operation Jaque that rescued 15 high-profile hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, in July 2008.
The elections will be monitored by the local Electoral Board Mission as well as by observers from the Organization of American States.
Authorities have also sought to maintain security Sunday by closing all its border crossings with Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela when the country votes.
Another election-related security measure went into effect on Friday, with the banning of sales of all alcoholic beverages until after the election.