Voters will go to the polls in Colombia on Sunday to choose a new president. Current President Andres Pastrana by law cannot seek a second term. But, his failure to negotiate a peaceful settlement with leftist guerrillas has helped one of his biggest critics become the front-runner in this election.
If the final public opinion polls released last week are correct, 49-year-old independent candidate Alvaro Uribe may become the first person ever to win a presidential race in Colombia in the first round of voting. But even if the bespectacled former governor of the central state of Antioquia fails to get the needed 50 percent Sunday, most political analysts believe he would likely win the mid-June runoff.
Mr. Uribe's rise has a lot to do with his tough talk and steady focus on Colombia's 38-year-war with leftist guerrillas.
He said the current government has failed to uphold the rule of law by not taking a more aggressive stand with the rebels. He believes that a strong military approach will eventually bring the insurgents to the negotiating table.
That kind of talk has helped Mr. Uribe establish a 17-point lead over his closest rival, Horacio Serpa of the Liberal Party. Only six months ago, Mr. Serpa was the frontrunner, but he lost support with his advocacy of a political solution to the civil conflict.
He has spoken in favor of peaceful dialogue and has attacked Mr. Uribe for being too hawkish. But many Colombians see Mr. Serpa's approach as a continuation of the failed policy of the current government of President Pastrana, who gave concessions to the guerrillas and got little in return.
Mr. Pastrana tried to establish a peaceful dialogue with the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, by granting the rebels a Switzerland-sized area as a safe zone, three years ago. But the FARC used the zone to carry out attacks and to smuggle cocaine, a major source of the rebel group's financing. Finally, the process broke apart in February and President Pastrana ordered the Colombian military to retake the zone. But by that time, Alvaro Uribe had already established a huge lead in the polls using the slogan "firm hand, big heart."
Mr. Uribe promises a build up of the armed forces as well as reforms in education and social services. He also favors seeking more U.S. aid in the fight against rebels he refers to as terrorists. Many Colombians agree with his use of that term because they have grown angry and frustrated by guerrilla attacks against civilian targets.
A Catholic mass was celebrated Thursday evening at the campaign headquarters of another presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt. The candidate was not present. Three months ago, she entered the former rebel safe zone, was kidnapped by the FARC and has not been heard from since. Although polls indicated she had almost no chance of winning the election, the candidate of the Green Oxygen Party was loved by many people here for her outspoken manner and her advocacy of peace.
Her mother, Yolanda Pulicio de Betancourt, read a letter to FARC commanders. She called on the rebels to release her daughter immediately, saying that the kidnapping of the candidate served no legitimate purpose in terms of their revolutionary struggle. She said the action had only caused pain to the family and silenced the voice of a candidate who spoke against corruption and social injustice, issues that are supposedly also important to the FARC.
The tears in the eyes of Ingrid Betancourt's mother reflect the deep agony felt by many in this country where violence has become a part of everyday life. More than 3,000 people die each year in the civil war. No one can be sure that this Sunday's election will bring a resolution of the conflict. But if polls are any indication, voters are likely to channel their anger, sorrow and frustration into an endorsement of Alvaro Uribe's hard-line approach.
Some Human Rights groups have expressed concern that Mr. Uribe might turn a blind eye to the abuses of right-wing paramilitaries, in an effort to defeat the FARC. That approach could lead to an intensification of the war and even worse violence. But many of the Colombians who support Alvaro Uribe say they are willing to take that chance.