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Analysts: Security Issues Focus of Colombian President's Re-Election Campaign


Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, is widely expected to win re-election Sunday. Analysts say that is mainly thanks to his efforts to end decades of armed conflict. Critics, however, say the president's single-minded focus on security has come at the cost of needed social improvements.

Since taking office in 2002, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has built his reputation on taking an unflinching approach to the Andean nation's long-running insurgency. He has stepped up a military offensive against leftist rebels, after previous governments failed to advance peace talks. He spent heavily to modernize Colombia's military, and sought a new partnership with the United States government to combat terrorism and curb drug trafficking.

Bruce Bagley, chair of the International Studies Department at the University of Miami, says those policies have resonated with many Colombian voters.

"Uribe, as president, has emphasized the security issue," he said. "That has made many segments of Colombian society, particularly in the urban areas, in the middle and upper classes, much, much happier. So, yeah, I think that's going to carry the day for him."

Mr. Uribe's success in lowering the number of attacks and kidnappings in many parts of Colombia in recent years is expected to translate into widespread support in Sunday's presidential election. Opinion polls show he has at least 50 percent support. He is competing against three other candidates.

The government's focus on security issues, however, has come at the expense of other key issues, according to Arlene Tickner, professor of international relations at the University of the Andes in Bogota.

She says the government's approach to the security issue has excluded poverty, inequality and other social problems in Colombia. She says any comprehensive security strategy must also consider these social and economic factors.

Mr. Uribe's main challenger for president, leftist Carlos Gaviria, has campaigned on some of those issues, and referred to Mr. Uribe as authoritarian and intolerant of criticism.

Professor Tickner says those claims may hold some truth, citing what she describes as Mr. Uribe's unforgiving commitment to security issues.

She cites the president's decision to label the long-running armed conflict as a terrorist situation, requiring anti-terrorist measures, and his rejection of political opponents as communists, saying these actions generate greater polarization.

But his style has been well received by some sectors of Colombian society, says Vinay Jawahar, program associate for the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

"The perception that people have [is]: here is someone who takes his job seriously, his mandate seriously, and works tirelessly for the good of the country, or for what he believes in, definitely helps him out," he explained.

One possible hurdle that Mr. Uribe faces in a second term is fallout from political concessions to lawmakers from several parties, in order to win the votes needed to change the law banning sitting presidents from seeking a second term. Professor Bagley of the University of Miami says those compromises may have shaken the foundations of the political party system in Colombia.

"President Uribe has not strengthened democracy," said Professor Bagley. "He has strengthened the state. He has increased security, but it has come at a very high cost."

Those liabilities may have a profound impact on whether Mr. Uribe is able to broaden his policy goals in a second term to include poverty reduction, job creation and other social issues. But analysts say, for many Colombian voters, no price is too high to restore peace and end fighting that kills hundreds of people every year.