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Attacks between Santos and main rival dominate Colombian election TV debate

President and Zuluaga exchange accusations over recent scandals ahead of Sunday’s vote Other candidates warn of risk of greater polarization should either man win the presidency

Zuluaga (l) and Santos shake hands before the debate.
Zuluaga (l) and Santos shake hands before the debate.J.M. GOMEZ / REUTERS

The volley of accusations between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his main rival in Sunday’s elections, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, dominated the televised debate between the five presidential candidates on Thursday.

The pair spent most of their time attacking each other over scandals that have made headlines in recent weeks.

While Santos has been weighed down by suggestions that he accepted drug money to finance his 2010 campaign, Zuluaga has recently been linked to a hacker who illegally spied on confidential peace negotiations between the government and FARC guerrillas.

The matter of Zuluaga’s involvement in the spying scandal was the first question on the agenda. Zuluaga, a follower of former president Álvaro Uribe, who was known for his tough stance against the FARC, has publicly stated that if he is elected president he will suspend all talks with the guerrilla group. The government has accused him of trying to sabotage the peace process, while he holds that “peace is not about making the FARC happy.”

Most topics have taken a back seat to the dirty battle between the two leading contenders

During the debate, Zuluaga denied the authenticity of a video released by El Tiempo newspaper (formerly owned by the Santos family) showing him in the company of the hacker. “The video is a trap to affect our campaign,” he said. Santos called him a liar and reminded him that he has repeatedly changed his story regarding his relationship with the computer spy.

Meanwhile, the incumbent president denied any links to drug gangs. “Not one peso from drug trafficking entered my campaign, Uribe has not produced any evidence because it doesn’t exist,” he said, in reference to his former mentor – Santos was defense minister under Uribe – and now bitter political enemy.

“I was persecuted by President Uribe from day one because I failed to be his puppet,” added Santos, in a veiled suggestion that Zuluaga was quick to pick up on.

“You show some respect for me,” Zuluaga retorted, after underscoring that he was his own man.

The video is a trap to affect our campaign”  Óscar Iván Zuluaga

Meanwhile, the other candidates warned Colombians about the risk of even greater polarization should either Santos or Zuluaga win the presidential elections.

Enrique Peñalosa, of the Green Alliance, said voters “must ask themselves if this is the democracy they want.”

Clara López, of Polo Democrático, called the dirty war between Santos and Zuluaga a shameful spectacle. “I want to underscore how painful this is, three days before the elections,” she said.

Besides the scandals, war and peace, other issues put to the candidates included mining, the environment, the prison system, the justice system, education and bilateral relations with Venezuela, although most of these topics have taken a back seat to the dirty battle between the two leading contenders, who once worked closely together as leaders of the Party of the U, which was created in 2005 around the figure of Álvaro Uribe.

The second and last of the televised debates is scheduled for Friday.

The latest survey shows Santos and Zuluaga in a technical tie going into the first round of voting on Sunday, with voting intention no higher than 30 percent.