Colombian president's ratings inch higher as unrest cools

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos waits to speak at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' popularity rebounded slightly from a record low for his administration as people felt more upbeat about the economy after a violent farm protest in August hurt his approval ratings, a leading pollster said on Thursday.

Santos' popularity rose to 29 percent in the latest poll by Gallup from a low of 21 percent in the last survey released in September.

"He has got over the farm protest in late August and the country has returned to the path it was on prior to that," Gallup Colombia chief Jorge Londono told Reuters.

"Economic issues have returned to levels before the protest and the people feel the government is supporting the farm sector more."

The last survey was conducted in the middle of a two-week farmers' strike during which media images showed riot police wearing armor confronting workers dressed in ponchos. Santos was ridiculed for saying the strike was a non-event.

The Gallup poll - carried out between October 18 and 27 - showed 63 percent of those surveyed had a negative image of Santos, down from 72 percent in September. Eight percent had no opinion.

Santos must decide by November 25 whether he will run for a second term in next year's election.

The economy grew better than expected in the second quarter and signs of an overall improvement in the industrial and retail sectors have increased consumer confidence.

Santos took office in 2010 with an approval rating of 74 percent and maintained decent ratings through the beginning of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels. But the initial euphoria has worn off and Colombians have begun to tire of the slow-paced negotiations that have so far yielded little.

The president has bet his legacy on ending a 50-year war with the FARC that has led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people and left millions displaced. Making progress in the coming months would help lift his ratings before a May presidential election.

"The president's ratings are still not good, they aren't ideal, they are low, but he has another six months to work," said Londono. "To pull them up, he needs a big effort. It won't be easy, but it's possible."

The government has spent almost a year working through a tough agenda in Cuba with FARC rebel leaders.

Details of the negotiations have not been made public, but many Colombians are concerned that Santos has offered too many concessions to the FARC leadership

The rebels have continued to kill scores of soldiers and attack oil and mining installations, putting additional pressure on Santos to clinch a deal.

Gallup polled 1,200 people in the five largest urban areas of the country. The survey had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Helen Murphy; Editing by Peter Cooney)