Law-and-order President Alvaro Uribe was re-elected in a landslide Sunday in Colombia’s most peaceful elections in more than a decade, strengthening the U.S. ally’s mandate to crack down on armed groups and drug traffickers.
The Harvard-educated Uribe’s win marks the first time in more than a century that an incumbent Colombian leader has been elected to a second term and bucks a trend of leftist leaders taking office across South America in recent years.
With 96 percent of ballots counted, the conservative Uribe scored a stronger than expected 62 percent of the vote, according to official results. He easily surpassed the 50 percent needed to win in the first round and exceeded pre-election expectations.
In second place, with 22 percent of the votes, was Sen. Carlos Gaviria of the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole party. Gaviria’s strong support — a record outcome for the left — confirms the growing strength of the democratic left in this decidedly conservative South American nation. In third place was Horacio Serpa, of the century-old Liberal Party, with just below 12 percent.
“We’re very happy with the results,” Gaviria told Caracol Radio Sunday night after recognizing his defeat. “For the first time in the country’s history, the main opposition party will be comprised of the democratic left.”
Sunday’s vote took place amid relative calm — underscoring one big reason Colombians backed Uribe. He is credited for bringing down crime rates and violence, and with overseeing an economic surge.
His critics say Uribe has showed a disinterest in social programs in a country with rampant poverty and fear his re-election we lead him to a strengthening of his alleged autocratic tendencies.
There were no reported attacks on voters during the elections, but the armed forces reported killing 12 rebels in a series of clashes with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, on Saturday and Sunday. Three soldiers were injured. It was not clear whether the clashes were election related.
About 220,000 troops guarded polling stations, shopping centers and other sensitive areas after what experts called the most peaceful campaign in more than a decade in a nation battered by violence involving leftist rebels, right-wing militias, drug traffickers and security forces.
Uribe would become the first incumbent to be re-elected in Colombia since President Rafael Nunez in 1892. A constitutional amendment he pushed through Congress last year allows him to seek a second term.
Recent years have seen left-leaning leaders take office in Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. But the election of the conservative Uribe bucks the leftward trend in South America.
Despite predictions of low turnout in a race whose outcome seemed sure, thousands of people shook off the chill and damp of the morning to vote early at the country’s largest polling station in central Bogota.
For the vote, Bogota looked more like a bomb-proofed Baghdad than its normally ebullient self. Camouflaged tanks rolled down a leafy street and heavily armed combat troops frisked motorists at random checkpoints.
While there has been 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.
According to a study by the independent Security and Democracy Foundation, 55 politically motivated murders and kidnappings were registered over the past 12 months — an 81 percent reduction from the year prior to the last elections, in 2002, when the FARC kidnapped candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who remains captive.
Colombians overwhelmingly credit Uribe for the dramatic drop in violence.
As part of his “democratic security” agenda, he has put 25 percent more troops and police on the streets during four years in office. And defense spending has nearly doubled, backed by military aid from the United States — part of the anti-drug effort known as Plan Colombia that has cost American taxpayers $4 billion since 2000.
Also, since 2002, some 30,000 members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, have handed in their weapons as part of a government-brokered amnesty deal with the landholder-backed paramilitary group.
Opponents accuse the president of focusing his war on Colombia’s left-wing rebels and their ties to drug-trafficking, while allowed the country’s murderous far-right paramilitaries to grow into a potent political force as they lay down arms in a government-brokered peace pact.
Colombia remains the world’s largest producer of cocaine. Uribe, key ally in U.S. drug interdiction efforts is urging the United States to beef up an aerial fumigation fleet of 20 planes that spray coca crops.