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Leftist agenda for Bogotá?

Mayor-elect 'Lucho' declares 'social emergency' in five poor barrios of Colombia's capital.

Colombia has a new political star who just might outshine popular President Alvaro Uribe.

Last weekend, Luis Eduardo Garzon, a salsa-dancing former communist who likes to be called simply "Lucho," was elected mayor of this wartorn nation's capital. His success was historic: It is the first time a leftist politician has won Bogotá's top post, and the mayor-elect garnered the highest number of votes in the city's history.

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The former golf caddy and labor leader will now compete with Mr. Uribe for the political microphone. But analysts say the relationship between Colombia's two leading men will be more cordial than combative.

Lucho, who placed third behind Uribe in the 2002 presidential contest, has declared that matters of national security are the president's turf. And the mayor-elect must focus on proving that his fledgling Independent Democratic Pole party can govern - rather than simply oppose the establishment, analysts say.

"The work of the Independent Democratic Pole is to turn itself into an alternative for [the office of] the president of the republic," said Fernando Cepeda, a former interior minister. "They can't be doing foolish things" like taking on Uribe, who still has "the support of national opinion."

Yet despite a 75 percent favorability rating, Uribe was dealt a double blow last weekend with the election of Lucho and the basic failure of his banner political project, known as the referendum. Though the final vote is not yet in, only four of the referendum's 15 points look likely to surpass the necessary 6.3-million vote threshold. Only one of those planks will save the government money, meaning Uribe is already devising what is likely to be an unpopular package of tax increases and spending cuts to stabilize the debt-ridden economy.

Most analysts don't believe that the referendum's failure will affect Uribe's personal popularity, which is largely based on his aggressive and somewhat effective battle against Marxist insurgents known as the FARC.

But parts of Uribe's political agenda have already sunk under the weight of the referendum's defeat, including a proposal to allow his reelection to another four-year term. Instead, politicians are buzzing about the possibility of Lucho for president, or more likely, a run by Democratic Pole Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff.

The mere election of a leftist politician to Colombia's second-most important office marks a watershed. Rightist paramilitaries and their allies annihilated the Union Patríotica, the last leftist party formed by demobilized guerrillas in the 1980s, through mass killings that included some of Lucho's closest friends. Lucho himself has never espoused violence as a way to gain power.

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Uribe's government has tried to spin Lucho's triumph as a victory for Colombian democracy and a blow to FARC guerrillas who have tried to reach power through armed struggle. Analysts tend to agree.

"It is a message to the guerrillas that they can win through politics," Mr. Cepeda explains. "That they don't need car bombs."

Lucho was not the only Independent Democratic Pole politician to win in Sunday's municipal elections, which occurred with relative calm despite threats of violence. Leftist politicians also won in races for governor of the regions of Valle and Nariño and in the contest for the mayor of Cali.

The Independent Democratic Pole's success is part of a leftist trend in South American politics from Venezuela to Brazil and most recently, Bolivia, where peasants overthrew US-friendly president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in October. Lucho's idol has always been Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and he has plans to meet with the Brazilian president.

Fernando Giraldo, a political-science dean at Bogotá's Javeriana University, attributes Lucho's victory to two factors: the need for Colombians to balance the extreme-right tendencies of Uribe with someone from the extreme left, and the sharp focus of Uribe's government on national security issues to the exclusion of unemployment and poverty.

Until Uribe's election, Mr. Giraldo says, "There had never been the possibility that the left would rise to power."

Lucho's first move as mayor-elect was to declare "social emergencies" in five poverty-stricken barrios in Bogotá. But otherwise, the mayor-elect has sounded a moderate and conciliatory tone to assuage Bogotá's upper classes and businessmen.

"They do not have to be afraid of us," Lucho said in his victory speech, alluding to the fact that he didn't campaign on class warfare and didn't plan on mounting a government that pitted poor against rich.

Lucho also offered to cooperate with Uribe, saying, "Bogotá will not be an independent republic. I am disposed to do everything that serves peace, but on this subject the president has the initiative."

But Lucho, a former head of the powerful Central Workers' Union that helped to defeat the referendum, and Uribe, are diametrically opposed politically.

In his victory speech, Lucho told giddy supporters that the "economic direction" in which Uribe had taken the country was unfortunate, and that Uribe's "democratic security policy must be based on the premise that the citizens are above the military."


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