BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombians willing to endure a bloody war in order to crush a 38-year-old insurgency on Sunday elected as president Alvaro Uribe, a hard-liner pledging to impose law and order on the unruly South American nation.
"By God, from this point we will begin to convert our plans into democratic security for all," the 49-year-old president-elect said in a somber victory speech, during which he recalled the 1983 murder of his father by rebels in an apparent kidnapping attempt.
With 98 percent of the votes counted, national election officials said Uribe had 52.8 percent, compared to 31.8 percent for former Interior Minister Horacio Serpa — his closest challenger. The majority vote gave Uribe an outright victory and averted a runoff next month.
In a speech to supporters, Serpa conceded defeat.
"I accept defeat and declare that Alvaro Uribe Velez was declared president of Colombians," Serpa said.
Uribe supporters drove through Bogota with campaign posters plastered on their windows, beeping their horns in celebration. "This is the beginning of a new country!" shouted Enrique Vergara, a publicist. "We are going to defeat the violent ones!"
Earlier in the day, Uribe had cast his ballot in Bogota, guarded by a phalanx of police and soldiers "Colombian democracy is very beautiful — the people have a profound sense of democracy," said Uribe, who has also promised to double the strength of the armed forces and seek wider U.S. military aid.
Before Uribe was even declared the winner, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson went to a hotel where he was holed up with campaign workers to congratulate him.
"It looks like he's ahead by a very significant amount and I'm here to congratulate him," Patterson said, predicting that Washington would have "very close" relations with an Uribe administration. The results of the vote showed that "Colombians are fed up of terrorism," she said.
In the cities and villages perched on Andean mountains and deep in sweltering jungles, voters cast ballots through the day, many believing that their country stood on the precipice of a wider war.
In Bogota's centuries-old Plaza Bolivar, police sharpshooters scanned the crowd while other officers set up roadblocks and frisked pedestrians. Army tanks and troops patrolled in the fog-shrouded Andean mountains that loom over the city.
"We want a solution to the violence in this country. We cannot continue in this way," said Ramiro Contreras, a 41-year-old businessman who voted for Uribe because "we know that he will hit the guerrillas hard."
In Villavicencio, a provincial capital south of Bogota, 52-year-old German Villegas said he also voted for Uribe — an independent candidate and Harvard-educated former state governor — "because we are sick of the war and of the guerrillas."
But there was also rejection of Uribe's calls for a bigger military, and of recruiting 1 million Colombian civilians to be an early warning system for the armed forces.
"He wants to arm everybody to the teeth," said Fanny Ramos, an unemployed accountant who voted for leftist candidate Luis Eduardo Garzon, who came in third with about 6 percent of the vote.
"The solution is to create employment and provide health care," Ramos said. The guerrillas would have nothing to protest against if things were better."
However, both the Colombian and U.S. governments say the leftist rebels, who finance themselves through drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion, are terrorists who long ago abandoned idealistic motives for waging a decades-old war that kills some 3,500 people yearly, most of them civilians.
In the northern town of San Luis, rebels dynamited the election headquarters, killing a woman.
"Today is a test of fire, because democracy is seriously threatened," said Santiago Murray, chief of election observers from the Organization of American States.
President Andres Pastrana — who is constitutionally barred from re-election — said as he voted that Colombians must respond to violence with the "weapon of democracy."
"We are going to say to the violent ones that it is through votes and not bullets that they can achieve their objectives," said Pastrana, who canceled peace talks with Colombia's main rebel group in February after three fruitless years.
While Pastrana won election on a peace platform, Uribe was elected on a war platform, fueled by voter disgust that the rebels did not grasp Pastrana's olive branch. Military commanders say the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces, known as the FARC, used the negotiating period — in which they were granted a Switzerland-sized safe haven — to strengthen their forces.
Uribe's hard-line reputation could raise red flags about human rights. Opponents have tried to link him to an outlawed right-wing paramilitary group which has massacred suspected rebel collaborators. Uribe denies any ties or sympathy, and has promised to battle all armed groups equally.
In his acceptance speech, Uribe left open the possibility of peace talks in the future, but laid down tough conditions that the guerrillas would likely reject: a cease-fire and a halt to rebel "terrorism."
Rebels on Sunday placed car bombs on at least four roads connecting provincial capitals. Voting in six remote southern counties was suspended after the rebels destroyed voting materials. Scattered clashes between rebels and army troops were also reported, in which two rebels were killed and two soldiers wounded.
In the village of Caney Medio, south of Bogota, authorities closed polls after rebels dynamited an electrical tower nearby and were believed lurking nearby. Voters were told to cast ballots in a nearby town, but many could not afford the taxi fare to get there.