BOGOTA (AFP) – Colombians vote Sunday to renew both houses of their scandal-tainted Congress as major political parties choose candidates for the May election to succeed President Alvaro Uribe.
A Colombian soldier walks past election posters near the Pan-American Highway. AFP photo
Uribe's ruling Conservative Party is expected to keep its majority in both houses, which currently stands at 72 out of 102 seats in the Senate, and 103 out of 166 in the House of Representatives.
Uribe's conservative administration is Washington's top ally in South America both in the fight against regional drug trafficking and in trying to counter the growing influence of leftist-populist President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
After two terms in office -- ending in August -- Uribe's nurturing of the economy to its best performance in 30 years and his crackdown on the leftist rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have earned him a near 70 percent popularity rating.
But the Colombian Congress has been plagued by scandals, with scores of lawmakers investigated for alleged links to paramilitary groups, including 12 who were convicted.
Sunday's legislative elections, it is hoped, will wipe the slate clean, but the Electoral Observation Mission has already reported 3.5 million dollars of illegal contributions for one senate race alone.
The Organization of American States has also warned that drug cartels could influence the elections with their mountains of cash.
"We've heard many voices and all seem to concur that still there are criminal groups -- not just the paramilitaries -- directly linked to drug trafficking that are trying to have a perverse influence in politics," a top OAS official told El Tiempo daily.
"In Colombia there is still a risk drug trafficking will try to influence politics, as it does in the entire world," OAS election observer mission chief Enrique Correa said in an interview published Saturday.
One political party has already been struck from the voting list on suspicion its leaders had links to paramilitaries, though opposition groups claim the party simply renamed itself and kept the same people, or their relatives, in charge.
Uribe, 57, on Saturday urged his countrymen to vote on Sunday and said he trusted the elections "will be peaceful across the territory... The armed forces are making an extra effort and we hope everything turns out well for democracy in our homeland."
Some 150,000 military and police have fanned out across Colombia to safeguard some 77,000 polling stations.
The president, however, acknowledged some candidates had been threatened.
"The government is aware of some pressures, including from FARC's Anncol website, that threaten people who support my (political) positions, but civic valor in Colombia is so much stronger," he said.
Despite such glitches, Uribe added, "by and large, we see a freer political process taking place today, thanks to this government's fight against terrorism."
This electoral campaign was the least violent in years, despite the kidnapping and subsequent killing of Caqueta department governor Luis Francisco Cuellar by the FARC Marxist rebels in December.
Some 210 political kidnappings took place during the 2002 elections, and seven others in 2006.
Sunday's vote will also kick off internal consultations in the major Conservative and Green parties to pick a candidate for the the May 30 presidential election -- with a runoff, if needed, on June 20.
Uribe's absence from the presidential race -- his bid for a third term in office was blocked last month when the Constitutional Court ruled a referendum on the issue unconstitutional -- has left his supporters without a clear leader.
Among half a dozen Conservative members vying to be candidate, two are most likely to succeed: Uribe's former ambassador to Britain Noemi Sanin and ex-agriculture minister Andres Felipe Arias.
Other political party hopefuls for the May election include former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, 58, an Uribe supporter. Surveys have him leading the pack, followed by leftist Gustavo Petro, pro-Uribe Radical Change Party's German Vargas Lleras, and independent Sergio Fajardo.
Trailing behind is Fajardo, a former Medellin mayor who needs his Citizens' Movement for Colombia to clinch at least one congressional seat in order to be eligible to run.
Some 29.8 million Colombians are registered to vote to choose from 2,539 candidates to fill Congress' combined 268 seats.
Five members will also be elected to the regional Andean Parliament.
Polling stations will open from 8:00 am (1200 GMT) to 4:00 pm (2000 GMT).