Security tight ahead of Colombia election
BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- A massive security presence is in place as Colombian voters get ready to go to the polls Sunday and choose a new leader.
President Andres Pastrana, who is constitutionally barred from running for another term, ordered a force of 212,000 soldiers and police to patrol the streets, polling stations, infrastructure sites and key highways leading into the city to prevent possible attacks by rebel groups seeking to scare off voters.
The polls are scheduled to open at 8 a.m. Bogota time (9 a.m. EDT).
Some 24 million Colombians are eligible to vote -- about half the population.
Turnout was high in the May 1998 election, which saw Pastrana, a conservative, defeat Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa.
Serpa finds himself in a similar role as the main challenger to front-runner Alvaro Uribe, an independent. Opinion polls give Uribe 44 percent to 52 percent of the vote vs. about 27 percent for Serpa.
The heavy security may help Uribe by reinforcing his campaign promises to boost safety and security in the country, which has been locked in a nearly four-decade-long war with various rebel factions, the most prominent of which is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
At the beginning of the year, FARC increased its attacks on police and military installations. Fighting between FARC rebels and paramilitary forces is estimated to kill 3,500 each year. FARC was blamed for car bombings, attacks on the Colombian infrastructure, including water supplies, bridges, electricity and an oil pipeline.
In late February, Pastrana suspended three years of talks with the rebel group and ordered the military to retake a safe haven about the size of Switzerland.
Uribe is predicted to win the Sunday vote, but he must have a majority of to avoid a runoff with the second-place candidate, who is expected to be Serpa. Representing a small reformist party is Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped by guerillas in February but remains on the ballot.
Louis Eduardo Garzon, a former labor leader, is third in the opinion polls with around 11 percent, and Noemi Sanin, a former foreign minister, is running fourth in the polls, with around 7 percent.
If elected, Uribe has pledged to increase military spending by $1 billion and double the police force, something voters seem to support.
The civil strife has taken a toll on Colombia's economy over the years, sinking in 1999 into its first recession since the 1930s. Unemployment jumped to 20 percent and the economy shrank by 4.5 percent. It has improved slightly, but remains a challenge to the next administration.
Uribe is expected to cast his ballot Sunday morning in Bogota under heavy security, one of his few scheduled appearances since he survived an assassination attempt in April in the coastal city of Barranquilla. Voter turnout is expected to be high.
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