Mon, May 29, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Colombians vote in presidential elections

VOTING Pre-election polls indicated that Alvaro Uribe would be the first incumbent to be re-elected for over a century when Colombians decided on their president yesterday


Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was touting yesterday's presidential election as the safest in more than a decade, one reason why voters are expected to award the law-and-order leader a rare second term.

To guarantee a safe vote, 220,000 troops have left their barracks to be deployed at 9,767 polling stations, major thoroughfares, shopping centers and other sensitive areas throughout the country.

"It's the safest elections we've had since 1986," security analyst Alfredo Rangel said.

If Uribe wins, he will be the first incumbent to be re-elected since president Rafael Nunez in 1892, owing to a constitutional amendment he pushed through Congress last year allowing him to seek a second term.

Uribe's challengers in the race are leftist Senator Carlos Gaviria and Horacio Serpa of the centrist Liberal Party.

Both have tried to draw attention to the incumbent's shortcomings -- a seeming disinterest in social programs in a country with a long legacy of rampant poverty amid privilege and wealth.

But harsh attacks have done little to diminish the president's popularity stemming from Colombia's surging economy and declining violence.

Pre-election polls

The final pre-election poll published a week ago showed Uribe crushing his closest opponent, Gaviria, by 30 percentage points with 55 percent of the vote. Uribe needs more than 50 percent to avoid a second-round runoff.

Pre-election polls predicted a distant third-place finish by Serpa, who lost to Uribe in 2002.

A third-place finish would be a devastating scenario for the century-old Liberal Party. Gaviria, former head of Colombia's Constitutional Court, in recent weeks has galvanized support among the anti-Uribe vote.

On the election weekend, Bogota looked more like a bomb-proofed Baghdad, Iraq, than its normally ebullient self.

Bars and restaurants were calm in the normally boisterous Zona Rosa neighborhood thanks to a 60-hour pre-election ban on alcohol sales.

Nearby, camouflaged tanks drive down a leafy street and heavily armed combat troops frisked motorists at random checkpoints.

For Colombians, this spectacle of military might is as normal an election ritual as the casting of ballots.

It is also a stark reminder that, despite a dramatic drop in kidnappings and murders under Uribe, an end to the violence perpetrated by leftist rebels remains elusive.

Rebels controlling huge tracts of the countryside have traditionally tried to assert their presence ahead of elections by increasing the number of attacks and politically motivated kidnappings.

Botched kidnap

This year, the most notable incident was the murder last month, during a botched kidnapping, of the sister of former president Cesar Gaviria, which authorities attributed to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's largest rebel group.

Cesar is of no relation to candidate Carlos Gaviria.

On Friday, three soldiers were killed when FARC guerrillas ambushed a navy infantry patrol near the town of El Guamo, 450km north of the capital.

But other than these attacks, the burning of several buses and a guerrilla-imposed ban on travel in two far-flung provinces, the violence leading up to yesterday's vote was minimal.

According to a study by Rangel's Security and Democracy Foundation, 55 politically motivated murders and kidnappings were registered over the past 12 months.

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