By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Enrique Penalosa, a jovial economist who made Colombia's congested capital more tolerable when he was mayor in the 1990s, is bringing his urban smarts to the national scene, hoping to persuade voters he will bring peace and prosperity as president.
Penalosa, considered an urban guru, is among several candidates taking on center-right incumbent Juan Manuel Santos, the frontrunner, in the presidential ballot on May 25. While running on the Green Alliance ticket, the white-haired and bearded contender is seen as an independent who prefers not to be politically pigeon-holed.
"More important than left or right is to do something different," Penalosa told Reuters in an interview late on Monday in which he pledged to continue peace talks being held in Cuba with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels.
"We believe that negotiations in Havana should transcend any government and shouldn't be a campaign issue," he said.
Just four weeks ahead of the election, it is hard to place Penalosa in the race. In some polls he would go into a June runoff round with Santos and beat him, and in others right-wing rival Oscar Ivan Zuluaga would go to a second round with Santos.
While the economic policies of the candidates are similar, many Colombians see Penalosa as a viable alternative to the traditional party candidates who usually rule the Andean nation.
Penalosa, who stands well over six-feet-tall, said he is "obsessed" with achieving equality in a nation where 50 years of war with the FARC have helped keep 40 percent of the population of 47 million in poverty. The conflict has killed more than 200,000 since it began in 1964.
Negotiations with the Marxist rebels are unlikely to be completed before the new presidential term begins in August. But Penalosa said he would keep current government negotiators in Havana and support the idea that "peace is not achieved with impunity, but it won't be achieved without generosity".
FARC and government representatives are working through a five-point agenda that includes how the guerrillas will enter the political system and make reparations to their victims. Many Colombians are worried the rebels will sign an accord that keeps them out of jail.
Penalosa emphasized that as president he would seek to bolster private investment in Latin America's fourth biggest economy and protect property rights, while at the same time preventing further damage to the environment from mining and oil exploration.
Santos has faced criticism for relying too much on big-business investment to promote growth at the expense of encouraging agricultural development.
The nation was paralyzed last year by a two-week protest against free trade accords, which blocked roads and stopped produce getting to market. Farmers have promised another demonstration beginning on April 28 in a tussle with the government that may damage Santos ahead of voting.
While Penalosa wants big companies to work in Colombia's rural areas, he says development must come with education, health services and decent homes for farmers.
TOUGH TO WIN
Penalosa, who once worked as a hotel bellboy, said he is not against using extractive industries to achieve the economic growth of above 5 percent that he sees as ideal, but it must be achieved responsibly.
"Mining and energy has always been a blessing laced with poison," Penalosa said.
"I don't totally oppose mining development," he said, suggesting Colombia look to mining countries such as Canada and Australia for advice. "But we have to protect natural areas. We can't under any circumstances let our forests be unprotected."
As mayor of Bogota between 1998 and 2000, Penalosa, a 59-year-old fanatic of bicycle riding, introduced a mass-transit bus system on the capital's streets as well as the hundreds of miles of cycle paths that crisscross the city.
He cleaned up one of Bogota's most dangerous areas, El Cartucho, where thousands of drug addicts and dealers lived in squalor in derelict houses. He converted it into a park.
Penalosa will lean on his experience combating urban crime as a key part of his campaign. He says the country has far too few prison cells for the increasing number of captured criminals, and that prevention policies are weak. "People in the cities live in terror."
Although beating his rival Zuluaga in some polls and behind him in others, Penalosa, who studied economics and history at Duke University in North Carolina, recognizes he is a long shot to replace Santos.
"It's difficult for us to win because we are up against some very powerful political machinery, especially in the rural areas where the pollsters don't even reach."
(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Daniel Wallis; and Peter Galloway)