The Washington Post
Monday, March 11, 2002; Page A18

Defying Threats, Colombians Cast Ballots

Congressional Poll Seen as Key Test

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service

BOGOTA, Colombia, March 10 -- Millions of Colombians defied threats of violence today to cast ballots in congressional elections that political leaders here
described as a test of the durability of the country's democracy at a time of rising guerrilla war.

Colombia's largest rebel group prevented voting in at least 15 towns by burning ballots and blocking access to polling stations. But those problems, while widely
dispersed geographically, affected only a fraction of polling places across the country. International observers characterized the vote, overseen by more than 100,000
troops, as largely free and fair.

"Because of the serious problems this country has, we were expecting far more violent acts," said Santiago Murray, head of the Organization of American States
electoral observer mission. "We strongly condemn these acts [that did occur], and we hope that the international community will join in that condemnation."

The voting concluded a treacherous campaign for more than 3,000 candidates seeking a spot in a new congress, which could help decide central questions about the
conduct of Colombia's war. After nearly four decades, the war now involves two Marxist-oriented guerrilla groups battling the government and a growing right-wing
paramilitary force, which fights the rebels on the same side as the army.

The vote comes two weeks after the collapse of President Andres Pastrana's three-year peace process with the 18,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC, the country's largest rebel group. The campaign featured broad voter intimidation, candidate assassinations and kidnappings, and candidates
clandestinely fielded by the armed groups. Pastrana urged Colombians this week not to be "blackmailed" by the violence. After casting his ballot this morning in the
capital, he said the vote "is to demonstrate to pessimists that we, too, can hold elections."

The long lines of voters in the cities and wide voter participation in some rural war zones suggested a spirit of civil defiance against armed groups that have threatened
to overwhelm the Western Hemisphere's second-oldest democracy. Although final numbers were not available, election analysts said turnout appeared to be slightly
higher than predicted.

More than 200 polling stations in areas of guerrilla influence were moved to the relative safety of nearby cities, but in other guerrilla strongholds voters appeared to be
signaling their anger with the rebels.

In San Vicente del Caguan, the largest city inside a former government-sanctioned guerrilla safe haven created for peace talks, voters turned out in large numbers
despite a FARC call for a boycott. Early returns there showed that the leading senate candidate was Jorge Eduardo Gechem Turbay, whose kidnapping last month
by the FARC led to the collapse of peace negotiations.

The voting also served as a dry run for presidential elections in May. And it appeared to bode well for hard-line candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez, who has surged to a
huge lead in the presidential race by advocating a more aggressive military policy against the guerrillas. He has suggested organizing 1 million civilians into armed
militias, expanding defense spending, and inviting foreign troops to help end the long-running war. His favored candidates appeared to win a large share of the
268-seat congress.

                                               © 2002