Colombian presidential vote bucks South America’s leftist trend

CONSERVATIVE Alvaro Uribe’s landslide victory in Colombia’s presidential election has interrupted a series of election triumphs by leftist candidates across South America.

Radical figures such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Boliva’s Evo Morales have sought to move the continent away from the US sphere of influence, and more moderate leftists have also taken power in Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

However, Mr Uribe became the first incumbent to win re-election in Colombia in more than a century after pledging to continue fighting crime and reducing poverty.

In what was Colombia’s least violent election in a decade he won a second term on Sunday with 62% of the vote — a landslide victory over his closest rival, Senator Carlos Gaviria, of the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole party.

Gaviria captured 22% of the vote, a record for the left in this decidedly conservative country.

The key challenges facing Mr Uribe, who begins his second term on August 7, will be those that have dominated daily life in this

South American country for decades: poverty, civil war and drug trafficking.

Colombia is the world’s largest cocaine producer and Mr Uribe is a key US ally in the war on drugs.

A major challenge is to complete the demobilisation of 30,000 far-right paramilitary fighters, even as evidence mounts that some have rearmed and their leaders continue to wield power in and out of the areas they once controlled.

Critics of Mr Uribe say the president has shown a disinterest in social programs in a country with rampant poverty and fear re-election will exacerbate his alleged autocratic tendencies.

But Colombians backed Uribe because of reduced levels of crime and violence following his crackdown on armed groups, and a surge of economic growth.

The government must also focus on defeating the FARC guerillas.

An offensive against the FARC during Mr Uribe’s first term forced the rebels to retreat into the jungle, but failed to catch their top leaders.

Another major challenge comes in stamping out the country’s massive illegal drugs industry. The drugs trade is closely related to the country’s conflict, given that it funds the groups fighting the civil war.

A recent report by the White House drug czar showed that the production of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, expanded 25% in Colombia in 2005. Officials attributed this to a change in methodology, but the news emboldened critics to call the anti-drug plan a failure.

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