BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombians elected as their next president Sunday a hard-liner who promised to aggressively confront this nation's leftist guerrillas, an option that promises to broaden the country's bloody internal war.
With 98% of the vote counted, conservative career politician Alvaro Uribe had won almost 53% of the ballots, enough to avoid a runoff election. His major opponents conceded defeat.
Uribe's accession to the presidency of this war-torn nation appears to augur a new and more dangerous stage in Colombia's civil war, which has grown increasingly violent since the collapse of peace talks earlier this year.
A stepped-up war would destabilize the region, encourage increased U.S. military intervention and threaten Latin America's oldest democracy with economic and social chaos.
Uribe, 49, who did not campaign in public after surviving numerous assassination attempts, appeared exhausted as he addressed the media late Sunday night. His face wan, his eyes red, he seemed to choke up as he referred to his father, killed by guerrillas during a botched kidnapping attempt 19 years ago. He promised the nation peace through strength.
''Reinforcing the military is going to be a necessary road for the protection of our citizens and the total recovery of human rights,'' Uribe said. ''The international community must know that Colombia has expressed its willingness to return to civility, to restore order.''
Uribe also pledged educational and economic reform, and said he would attack rampant corruption. But achieving security, he said, was key. He promised to ask the guerrillas to negotiate, but only if they gave up terrorist attacks and laid down their arms.
The guerrillas have consistently rejected calls for a cease-fire.
''From this moment on, we are going to enact our beliefs in order to achieve democratic security for everyone,'' Uribe said. ''Security so they don't kidnap the businessman, they don't kill the union leader, they don't extort the ranch owner, or the field hand.''
Uribe's chief opponent, Horacio Serpa appeared late Sunday at a convention center to acknowledge Uribe's victory. A traditional party machine politician, Serpa was a distant second with 31.7% of the nearly 11 million votes cast. Turnout was estimated at 46% of eligible voters.
Serpa, who had accused Uribe of receiving support from the country's right-wing paramilitaries, warned Colombians that a broader war was coming.
"I warned this country about the dangers of authoritarianism and all-out war," Serpa said as he stood surrounded by his wife, children and supporters. "The future of Colombia cannot be in war."
Other opponents also conceded that Uribe would become Colombia's 43rd president, taking office in August.
Luis Eduardo Garzon, a former golf caddie universally known as "Lucho," won a surprising third place with 6.2% of the vote as the head of a left-wing coalition that insisted on negotiations as the only viable solution to the conflict.
He recognized Uribe's victory but promised to continue fighting for peace with his new party, known as the Democratic Pole. Noemi Sanin, the fourth-place finisher with 5.8% of the vote, also acknowledged Uribe's victory.
"Peace is an indisputable condition for development," said Garzon, later adding: "We are not going to have anything to do with war."
U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson showed up at Uribe's campaign headquarters to congratulate him, saying the U.S. would have "very close" relations with Uribe, who has studied at Oxford and Harvard.
Uribe's victory was the first time since implementation of the country's 1991 constitution that any president has won outright in the first round. Analysts interpreted the results as a stunning show of support in a crowded field of four major candidates.
It also bodes well for Uribe's ambitious center-right reform program to improve the military, government and public services.
The diminutive politician wants to double the size of Colombia's military. He also plans to create a million-member-strong citizen patrol force to warn of attacks by the rebels and paramilitaries.
Uribe is seeking direct U.S. funding of the conflict; American aid has been confined to drug-fighting efforts. The Bush administration has already proposed such a change in part of this year's $657-million aid package to Colombia.
Uribe has also proposed slashing the size of Congress, cutting tariffs and opening hundreds of new schools.
"It's a clear mandate for Uribe," said Pablo Franky, a political analyst at Javeriana University. "I believe it's overwhelming."
Other analysts were less sure. Uribe, running as an independent, is facing a legislature filled with hard-core members of the country's traditional Liberal Party.
He will also have a hard time implementing his reforms. Colombia's economy is suffering, with public debt now equal to nearly half the GDP. Unemployment hovers at about 20%, and more than half the population lives in poverty.