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Leftist becomes Colombia mayor, referendum failing
( 2003-10-27 10:04) (Agencies)

A former Communist won election as mayor of Colombia's capital on Sunday, completing a weekend of disaster for right-wing President Alvaro Uribe, who also faced failure in a crucial referendum.

Former oil union leader Luis Eduardo Garzon won 47 per cent of the vote in Bogota, beating pro-Uribe rival Juan Lozano with 40 per cent, according to the national electoral office.

Victory for the man known as "Lucho," now a moderate leftist with an earthy sense of humor who finished third in last year's presidential election, gives a loud voice on the national stage to a leading critic of Uribe's tough security policies aimed mainly at leftist rebels.

The highly popular president will be still more downcast by the apparent failure of Saturday's long heralded referendum, whose questions included a state salary freeze and a reduction in the size of Congress.

It would be the biggest setback in 14 months in office for Uribe and a triumph for unions and leftists -- including Garzon -- who campaigned for abstention.

Left-wing Colombian politicians have often been targets for assassination and none has been mayor of the nation's capital -- a potential springboard to the presidency. "Everyone will be watching us, and if we don't live up to expectations, we'll go back 50 years," said a tired but contented Garzon.

Bogota's transformation from chaos to order over the past decade has made it, in the eyes of some, a model for overhauling the whole war-torn country. Garzon, who never obtained a college degree, says new parks and cycleways have benefited the rich while poverty has increased.

Uribe considered the referendum a once-in-a-generation chance to reduce corruption, save money for schools and hospitals and avoid an Argentine-style economic collapse.


With 97.94 per cent of referendum booths counted, a final result could be delayed until Wednesday or Thursday due to difficulties transporting results from towns isolated by war and geography.

But most of the 15 questions looked set to be invalid because fewer than 25 per cent of the electorate participated, even though each point received at least 80 per cent support.

Uribe had bet his 75 per cent approval rating would translate into support for the referendum, for which he has campaigned since presidential elections in May 2002.

Its seeming failure will rattle international investors, who have been impressed by Uribe, setting the stage for a sell-off in Colombian bonds and a fall in the peso.

The government has said it will look elsewhere if necessary to save the $7 billion over seven years it had hoped for from the referendum, probably raising taxes.

Uribe, voting for mayor in Bogota's colonial Bolivar Square, gave few clues as to his next move.

"Respect for democracy, love for Colombia and discipline in seeking solutions," said the president, as storm clouds gathered on a gray day in the Andean mountain capital.

Some questions looked set to sneak past the 25 per cent barrier -- including proposals to make legislators' votes public, ban those who misappropriate state funds from government employment and cap state pensions.

Some 270,000 soldiers and police protected voters on the electoral weekend, in which voters around the country elected governors and mayors. Marxist guerrillas and far-right paramilitaries killed dozens of local candidates in the months leading up to the elections.

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