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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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By the skin of their teeth

By Hisham El-Naggar

After much hand-wringing and rampant violence, Colombia went ahead with its provincial and municipal elections Sunday. The big news is that the elections were a success -- for the country, not for any particular party.

Certainly President Andrés Pastrana has cause to feel dejected about the results. His conservative party lost governors in the key provinces of Antioquia, Boyac and Huila, while the rival liberal party won in Antioquia and captured the mayorship in Medellín. But the remarkable thing about the elections is that they were held at all. In the run-up to the elections, 21 candidates for mayoral or city council positions were killed, roughly 60 were kidnapped, and more than 100 candidates dropped out of the race. Defying all expectations, voter turnout was still reportedly impressive and there were remarkably few incidents throughout the country -- no small matter, considering that the last elections, held in 1997, were largely sabotaged by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the guerrilla force that physically controls many parts of Colombia and operates with near-impunity throughout the country.

This election came at a critical time for Colombia. Pastrana doubtless considers the much-touted "Colombia Plan" to be his crowning achievement. The $7.5 billion programme, financed by the United States to the tune of nearly $2 billion, has aimed to combat the cultivation of the coca plant and weaken the guerrillas who reportedly thrive on drug trafficking.

But the link between guerrilla movements and the phenomenally lucrative drug trade is by no means a simple equation. Most Colombians do suspect that drug trafficking has enriched guerrilla groups, but many political groupings in Colombia are suspected of having ties with some cartel or other. The fact is, drugs have had a disastrous impact on this struggling South American republic. Apart from breeding horrifying violence, they are perceived to have corrupted so many politicians that Colombians could be forgiven their cynical attitudes about the democratic process.

But instead of being fed up with the very idea of elections, Colombians can be said to have cast a vote for their country in the elections held this week. Rather than turn away from the vote in disgust, many Colombians reaffirmed their faith in a democratic future by casting their votes on Sunday, many of them still enjoying the opportunity with obvious relish.

The result was a stinging blow dealt to traditional party leaders, with independents ending up the biggest winners. Colombians are telling both political leaders and guerrillas alike that they are fed up with business as usual. In Bogota, current Mayor Antanas Mockus kept his seat with the support of a coalition consisting of the Independent National Alliance and the Visionary Party -- a coalition openly independent of the traditional parties. In Cauca, independent candidate Floro Tunubal defeated Cesar Cordoba, who had the explicit support of an improvised coalition of traditional party bosses.

New faces clearly made an impression on voters. The Bogota papers could not help marvel at the victory of one Luis Eduardo Diasz Chaparro, a shoe-shine with no political experience who won a seat in the city council. Another striking occurrence involves the relatively small municipality of San Vicente de Caguàn, where Nestor Ramirez trounced his rivals despite the fact that he was supported by the "Green Oxygen Party", whose leader Ingrid Betancourt had publicly attacked FARC. Surprisingly, the candidate widely believed to be the FARC representative, came in third.

Can the country-wide vote be interpreted as support for the controversial Colombia Plan? That, no doubt, is how Pastrana will seek to present it. Never mind that his party got trounced; never mind that he is just the kind of traditional politician who fared so poorly in this election. Never mind that the Colombia Plan has drawn considerable criticism in neighboring countries. The fact is, the government organised an election in which most voters participated. One must be thankful for small victories.

It cannot be denied, however, that what voters appear to be asking for is a new beginning. Enough bloodshed, enough dishonesty. No more empire-building by drug barons, which has worsened the lot of all Colombians and blackened Colombia's name. Hence the marked predilection for independents and new-comers. Hence the Colombians' determination to go out and vote -- just so nobody takes them for granted. In practical terms, this election was a kind of warming up for the 2002 presidential elections. Until then, it seems, coalitions will be the order of the day. In order to survive, the conservatives and the liberals will have to look outside their not so cozy circle.

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