Colombians vote for new president
Former defence minister and ex-mayor of capital, Bogota, lead tight race to replace Uribe.
Last Modified: 30 May 2010 20:15 GMT

Al Jazeera's Teressa Bo reports from a poorer
neighbourhood in Bogota on election day

Voting in Colombia is under way in an election that will mark the end of eight years of the conservative presidency of Alvaro Uribe.

Polls before Sunday's vote have shown Juan Manuel Santos, a candidate for the Unity Party and a former defence minister under Uribe, in a tight trace with Antanas Mockus, the Green Party candidate and a former mayor of the capital, Bogota.

Although there are nine candidates running, Santos and Mockus have grabbed the most attention in the campaign.

Santos has lost significant ground in opinion polls over the last six weeks, but speaking to Al Jazeera after casting his vote, he said: "I never was way above everybody else. We have had to work very hard to in order to attain this support from the Colombian people."

Santos said that being allied to the popular Uribe did not mean an automatic translation to good election results.

He said he rather expected that "our democracy will be even stronger tomorrow than it is today".

High turnout expected

Speaking from Bogota, Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera's Latin America editor, said: "The is an extraordinarily competitive race. One of the most competitive the country has seen in many, many decades."

The ballot is the first round in the election and if neither presidential candidate garners a majority, the elections will go to a second round with the two top candidates standing in a runoff on June 20.

About 29 million Colombians are eligible to vote.

in depth

    Mixed views on Uribe's legacy
    Internally displaced people 'face poll abuse'
    Voters' opinions on presidential election
    The poor dream of gold
   Poverty key issue in presidential poll
    Uribe's uncertain presidential legacy
    Wealthy Colombians favoured
    Presidential candidate under fire
    The healthcare 'crisis'
    A view of what is at stake
    Election final stretch

Al Jazeera's Teresa Bo, reporting from Ciudad Bolivar in Bogota, said the polls were expected to be a busy one.

"Many experts are saying that this election is going to have the highest turnout in Colombia's history," she said.

"Generally in Colombia about 40 per cent of the population vote. But experts are saying this time around about 50 per cent of the population will cast their ballots."

She said that a proportion of voters, typically supporting Santos, were focused on security and another group, generally backing Mockus, is prioritising healthcare and unemployment as election issues.

The vote comes amid warnings from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rebel group that it will try to disrupt the polls.

In response to the threats security has been stepped up across the country, with thousands of soldiers and police on heightened alert in anticipation of possible attacks by the left-wing guerrillas.

Santos on Saturday spoke about how his party have regained control of the country during their political term and have returned Colombia to "peace and tranquillity".

Santos was a crucial figure in the operation that freed Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate, and three US security contractors held hostage by the Farc in 2008.

He has relied on Colombia's gains over the leftist rebels under his leadership, arguing he is the best candidate to carry on with Uribe's security policy.

Santos also has portrayed himself as the best candidate to deal with neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador, both countries with contentious relations with Colombia.

'No to fear'

Santos' campaign rallies have been punctuated by slogans saying "No to fear" in reference to the 46-year-old Farc, responsible for murders, kidnappings and extortion, and generalised crime as the oldest insurgency in the Americas.

"The Farc intend to interfere in the elections. In some areas of the country they are threatening people to stop them from voting for me," Santos told supporters on Saturday.

Main candidates

Antanas Mokus

Former mayor of Bogota and head of Green Party.

Pledges to continue Uribe's security policies but also promises to bring in governmental transparency.

lectoral campaign emphasised  economic reforms and tackling high unemployment.

Juan Manuel Santos

Defence minister under Uribe.

losely involved in the battle against Farc rebels.

His strategies against fighting the Farc have been marred by allegations of human rights abuses.

Also vows to continue Uribe's security policies.

Under Uribe's tenure, military spending increased from three per cent of gross domestic product to 4.1 per cent, boosting the security forces from 220,000 men to 425,000.

Anti-Farc operations over the same period thinned the rebels' ranks from an estimated 17,000 in 2002 to around 7,500.

Mockus, for his part, has also promised to crack down on the rebels though he has also emphasised the economic policies he hopes to implement.

Gabriel Elizondo, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Colombia's second city, Medellin, said that turnout was very high.

"Here, both Mockus and Santos have a lot of supporters. So both have a lot of reason to get their voters out. But especially Mockus, because so many of his supporters are young and first-time voters," he said.

Our correspondent said Santos' voters are "probably going to turn up either way ... they are rock solid, middle-aged to older voters. But the younger voters that Mockus is relying on, are the ones that we are simply not sure if they are going to turn out to vote."

Colombia currently has the highest unemployment rate in South America and Mockus has pledged to create more jobs.

His base of support is the relatively better-off citizenry of Bogota, while Santos has aimed his efforts at Colombia's large population of rural and poorer voters.

Al Jazeera and agencies
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