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Good News From Colombia (for once!)

Who woulda thunk it?

Left Wing Gets Lift in Colombian Capital

Mon Oct 27, 8:18 AM ET

By KIM HOUSEGO, Associated Press Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia - Residents of Colombia's sprawling capital elected a former Communist union leader as their mayor in municipal elections, giving a major boost to embattled left-wing politicians who have long been the target of intimidation and assassination attempts.

With 92 percent of ballots counted, Luis Eduardo Garzon, the son of a cleaning lady, took 46 percent of the vote against 40 percent for the government-backed center-right candidate, Juan Lozano, the nation's official election body said. Lozano conceded defeat.

The victory was seen as a further headache for hardline President Alvaro Uribe, coming a day after he suffered a defeat in a sweeping referendum he had championed as vital to fight terrorism and boost the faltering economy.

Bogota is the biggest political prize ever claimed by an openly left-wing politician in Colombia. It provides a powerful launch pad for Uribe's opponents to attack his plans for tax hikes and labor reforms aimed at raising cash to pay for his war on leftist rebels.

"It's not easy for this country to accept (left-wing) proposals like ours," Garzon told local radio.

Popularly known as "Lucho," Garzon has pledged to help improve the lives of the poor in Bogota, a city of 7 million, facilitating access to education and setting up free food distribution centers. "No triumphalism, no arrogance" he drummed at campaign rallies, remarks clearly intended to set him apart from Uribe's tough, no-nonsense rhetoric.

Garzon came in third in last year's presidential elections and the Bogota mayor's office will give him a useful springboard for another run at the presidency.

Uribe's office said the president would meet with Garzon for talks later Sunday at the presidential palace.

German Piffano, 35-year-old anthropologist, said he voted for the union leader in part to give Uribe a slap in the face.

"With Uribe you're either on his side or you're a terrorist," he said. "Lucho represents a new alternative."

Garzon's victory was somewhat of a surprise given the huge popularity of his center-right predecessor, Antanas Mockus, who improved the quality of life in Bogota by instituting rush-hour restrictions and building parks, bike paths and numerous libraries. Mockus had endorsed Lozano.

Outside of Colombia's major cities, the campaign period before Sunday's vote was particularly violent, even by Colombian standards. Armed groups killed at least 30 candidates for mayor and kidnapped a dozen others.

However, the election day appeared to have gone remarkably smoothly. The only violence reported Sunday occurred when suspected guerrillas burned ballots in three villages.

Most of the pre-election attacks were carried out by leftist rebels, who sought to undermine Uribe's contention he was bringing state control into the furthest reaches of the country, which has been racked by four decades of civil war that kills about 3,500 people, mostly civilians, every year.

The rebels' archenemies, outlawed paramilitary groups, also intimidated candidates in order to have their favorites run unchallenged. The climate of fear left half a dozen towns without candidates.

In Saturday's referendum, meanwhile, it appeared the government failed to obtain enough votes to pass 11 of the 15 points on the ballot, with about 100,000 votes left to be counted, mostly in remote provinces.

Uribe had campaigned relentlessly for the referendum, saying it would give him the necessary tools to fight terrorism and corruption and put the economy on solid footing.

Its rejection was the greatest defeat to hit Uribe since he was elected to office by a landslide last year on pledges to put this violence-wracked nation in order and clamp down on corruption.

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

Defense Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez acknowledged defeat.

"All Colombians have lost an opportunity to adopt structural reforms," she told reporters after casting her vote.

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 Uribe's war on leftist rebels.

However, four of the referendum points that still stood a chance of approval included a measure barring convicted criminals from holding or running for public office.

Each point needed to be voted on by at least 25 percent of registered voters. Some points were doomed because voters Saturday simply left many points of the ballot blank "” either to annul the result or perhaps because they were confused by the complicated issues.

Illegal, noun:

A term used by the descendents of European Immigrants to refer to descendants of Native Americans

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