BOGOTA, Colombia — Virgilio Barco Vargas, candidate of the opposition Liberal Party, won election Sunday as president of Colombia by a wide margin over his conservative and Marxist opponents.
With Barco leading by more than 1.3 million votes and more than 80% of the vote counted, Alvaro Gomez Hurtado, the Conservative Party candidate, acknowledged defeat in a televised statement at 9 p.m., five hours after the polls closed.
With 5.8 million votes counted, Barco had 3,365,000 votes, or 56%, and Gomez had 2,073,000, or 36%. Jaime Pardo Leal, a judge who ran as the candidate of the Communist Party and a guerrilla group that accepted a government amnesty, was receiving only 4% of the national vote.
The vote was a personal triumph for Barco, a 65-year-old engineer who unified the Liberal Party and appeared to be on his way to winning by the widest margin in Colombia's presidential history.
Barco promised reorganization of the government and an active program to reduce unemployment as part of a program to reduce left-wing guerrilla violence and stimulate economic growth in this South American country.
Thousands of Barco supporters, waving red flags and scattering red carnations, greeted the Liberal Party triumph with dancing in the streets of this capital and in other major cities.
The vote in this capital, where 4 million people live, was enthusiastic and peaceful. Automobiles flying the Liberals' red flag or displaying pictures of Gomez toured the streets with horns blaring as voters waited in long lines at voting tables in schools and public markets to cast their secret ballots.
There were 100,000 soldiers and police on duty to guard the polls against a threat of extremist violence at the 7,247 voting locations in this vast Andean country of 715,000 square miles.
Colombia stretches from the Caribbean coast on the north to the Pacific Ocean on the west. Snow-capped mountains rise over rich agricultural river valleys where major cities such as Cali, Medellin and Barranquilla hold over 1 million people each. Tropical eastern grasslands contain oil wells, cattle ranches--and clandestine cocaine laboratories and airstrips from which drugs are smuggled to the United States.
Colombia has been a stable, constitutional democracy since 1958 when a pact between the Liberal and Conservative parties restored civilian rule after a four-year military regime. Sunday's election was the eighth for president since democracy was restored.
When other Latin American countries, including Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Ecuador were being taken over by military regimes, Colombia remained a stable democracy, like its neighbor Venezuela, because of close cooperation between the major political parties.
In 1978, Julio Cesar Turbay, the Liberal candidate, won the presidency. In 1982, the Liberals split, and Belisario Betancur, a Conservative, won an upset victory and a four-year term that will end when Barco takes office on Aug. 7. The Liberals' victory will reinforce the democratic system that, except for left-wing extremists, seems to have the approval of all Colombians.
Colombia, with a population of 27 million people, is Latin America's fourth-biggest country. It has serious problems of crime and violence as a center for drug traffickers and left-wing guerrillas. But it also has one of the most dynamic economies in the region and is a cultural center of international importance.
For the size of its population, Colombia's foreign debt of $12 billion is one of the lowest in the region and poses no serious problem. The recent development of major oil and coal deposits, plus a boom in the price of coffee, Colombia's main export, have placed this country on the road to energy self-sufficiency and strong economic growth.
Betancur, a populist figure to the left of his Conservative Party, promised political pacification through negotiations with left-wing guerrillas and social programs for the poor. He did not achieve either. Betancur's political prestige suffered a major setback last year when M-19 guerrillas seized Colombia's Supreme Court justices as hostages. Military commanders ordered that the Palace of Justice be stormed. The guerrillas were wiped out, but 12 justices were among the more than 80 people who died in the shootout and the fire that followed the assault.
Barco has detailed plans to modernize the Colombian state as an instrument of economic regulation and social investment, in the New Deal tradition. Reducing unemployment is his main short-term objective.
Barco has unified the once-divided Liberal Party. As national chairman, he led the party to a clear victory in congressional elections in March.
Barco, 65, has been preparing for the presidential job since he entered politics 40 years ago after returning from the United States with an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a succession of Liberal governments, Barco has been minister of public works, minister of agriculture and mayor of Bogota.
Barco is well-known abroad. He was Colombia's ambassador to Washington during the Jimmy Carter Administration and has been a director of the World Bank.