Colombia Holds Local Elections
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Local elections took place peacefully across Colombia on Sunday in what officials labeled a vote against the guerrilla and paramilitary violence tearing apart this South American country.
Colombians elected governors, mayors and town council members, many of them independents challenging the two traditional political parties _ the Conservatives and Liberals _ who are increasingly blamed for Colombia’s woes.
Charges that leftist rebels stole ballots marred closely watched voting in a guerrilla-held southern area. It was the first time in 36 years of fighting that Colombians had voted under formal rebel rule.
Violence among rebels, rival paramilitary militias and government troops has left tens of thousands dead, forced millions to flee their homes and crippled a once-vibrant economy. But there were no reports of major clashes Sunday and only scattered disruptions to voting.
Despite its endemic strife, Colombia has one of Latin America’s strongest electoral traditions and little history of military coups. Turnout appeared strong, even though many said they doubted their vote would make a difference.
``This country is a disaster,″ said Lucy Restrepo said as she left a polling station in a wealthy Bogota neighborhood guarded by soldiers with machine guns.
``There is robbery, corruption, war. It’s horrible,″ she said. ``Who knows if my vote will help?″
Colombia’s embattled democratic system also was at stake in Sunday’s elections, officials said.
``Voting sends a very important message to the peace process,″ President Andres Pastrana said after casting his ballot in Bogota’s colonial Bolivar Plaza. ``It says to the insurgents that Colombians want to strengthen our democratic process, to strengthen our democracy.″
Voting was disrupted in only two of Colombia’s nearly 1,100 municipalities. Isolated fighting left two soldiers and one guerrilla dead _ fewer casualties than on a typical day.
Independents took mayor’s races in four of Colombia’s five largest cities, including Bogota. The winner in the capital was Antanas Mockus, an eccentric former university professor of Lithuanian descent who held the post from 1995-97.
The elections came amid mounting tensions here: The country is bracing for increased fighting as a U.S. backed anti-drug offensive gets under way in cocaine-producing regions controlled by the guerrillas and paramilitary groups.
Washington is providing Colombia with $1.3 billion in mostly military aid and training to fight the drug trade and strengthen democratic institutions.
Guerrillas do not consider the political system legitimate and were not formally participating in the elections. However, the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, largely honored its pledge not to disrupt the process.
In San Vicente del Caguan, the largest of five southern municipalities the FARC controls openly under a peace concession from Pastrana, an independent was elected mayor even though the rebels informally backed his opponent.
However, charges that rebels stole ballots forced officials to void elections in Vista Hermosa, another of the five FARC-held towns.
In Putumayo, a southern state paralyzed by a month-old FARC road blockade and clashes with paramilitaries, voting held only in large towns went smoothly, officials said.
Although election day was peaceful, threats from armed groups had marred months of campaigning in hundreds of towns.
Twenty-one candidates for mayor or city council were killed by paramilitary groups or leftist rebels in the run-up to the elections, according to Colombia’s mayors’ association. About 100 candidates withdrew, citing intimidation and threats by the armed factions.
In the past week alone, eight lawmakers and local political candidates were kidnapped by suspected militias or guerrillas.
In separate news Sunday, Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, announced that about two dozen hostages kidnapped last month near the western city of Cali would be freed starting Monday.