- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombians elected state and municipal leaders yesterday, after a bloody campaign period in which dozens of candidates were killed, with a former communist union leader winning the race for mayor of Bogota over the candidate favored by President Alvaro Uribe.

The election was held a day after voters rejected most points of a referendum championed by the hard-line president, according to results released yesterday.

Mr. Uribe had hoped the referendum would give him the tools he said he needed to fight terrorism and corruption and boost the faltering economy.

The weekend of voting constituted the greatest setback for Mr. Uribe since he was elected by a landslide last year on pledges to put this violence-racked nation in order and clamp down on corruption.

The campaign period before yesterday’s vote was particularly violent, even by Colombian standards. Armed groups killed at least 30 candidates for mayor and kidnapped a dozen others.

Most of the attacks were carried out by leftist rebels, who sought to undermine Mr. Uribe’s contention that he was bringing state control to the farthest reaches of the country, which has suffered four decades of civil war that kills about 3,500 people, mostly civilians, annually.

The rebels’ archenemies, outlawed paramilitary groups, also intimidated candidates in order to have their favorites run unchallenged.

A glum Mr. Uribe appeared in Bogota’s main plaza alongside gun-toting soldiers in a pouring rain yesterday afternoon to vote in the mayoral and state elections. He refused to comment on the referendum results.

However, Defense Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez acknowledged defeat.

“All Colombians have lost an opportunity to adopt structural reforms,” she said after casting her vote.

With about 100,000 votes left to be counted, it appeared the government failed to obtain enough votes to pass 11 of the 15 points on the ballot. Election officials said final results would not be known officially until later this week.

The rejected measures included one to reduce the number of seats in Congress and another to freeze state salaries and pensions, to save money for Mr. Uribe’s war on leftist rebels.

Voting for the referendum was marked by a series of rebel attacks that killed at least 13 persons, but the only violence reported yesterday occurred when suspected rebels burned ballots in three villages.

In the race for mayor of Bogota, a city of 7 million, with 92 percent of the votes counted, Luis Eduardo Garzon, the son of a cleaning lady, took about 47 percent of the vote against about 40 percent for the government-backed center-right candidate, Juan Lozano, the nation’s official election body said. Mr. Lozano conceded last night.

The Bogota mayor’s office is the biggest political prize ever claimed by an openly left-wing politician in Colombia. It provides a powerful launching pad for Mr. Uribe’s opponents to attack his plans for raising taxes and radical labor reforms aimed at helping pay for his war on leftist rebels.

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