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Colombia's election graft enough to make a dictator blush

BOGOTA, Colombia — With so much focus in Colombia on the presidential race, it’s worth noting that the laundry list of electoral shenanigans from last month’s congressional balloting would make a Banana-Republic dictator blush.

The accusations include vote-buying and ballot-box stuffing. More 20 newly elected senators are the relatives of disgraced former lawmakers accused of collaborating with paramilitary death squads.

Then there’s the case of “el borracho.” President Alvaro Uribe, a teetotaler, has called for an investigation of the head of the National Registry — the government office that certifies the electoral results — for allegedly getting hammered on election night.

Due to the chaos, we still don’t know who was elected to Colombia’s lower house one month after the March 14 voting.

All that said, Colombians are proud of their democracy. The country’s last military coup went down in the 1953. For most of the past half century, Colombia has been governed by elected presidents. In the May 30 first-round balloting, voters will start choosing a replacement for Alvaro Uribe, one of the country’s most successful presidents in recent history.

But with just a few candidates, presidential elections are fairly easy to monitor. Front runners operate under the glare of the national media making it more difficult to get away with game-changing fraud.

The greater challenge is keeping an eye on the congressional elections which often involve thousands of candidates stumping for votes in remote areas where no one is looking.

I investigated electoral fraud a few years ago and found Colombian candidates blatantly passing out food, electric fans and construction materials in exchange for votes.

In Brazil, I was told about candidates swapping dentures for votes. They delivered the top sets of false teeth up front and the bottom halves after their victories were confirmed. Other people were given pressure cookers — the pots prior to voting and the all-important tops afterward.

For legislative elections, Colombia still uses paper ballots which opens the door to schemes like “the carousel.” Here’s how it works. A political operative gives the first voter a paper ballot marked for the correct candidate. The voter deposits this ballot and smuggles a fresh one out of the polling place in exchange for cash. This new ballot is marked for the preferred candidate and passed on to the next voter.

It would be nice to report a new wave of ethical campaigning in Colombia, but last month’s congressional balloting was greasy in the extreme.

In the northern state of Choco “every kind of mechanism to commit fraud in an election appears to have taken place,” according to the Bogota daily El Tiempo.

At one polling place, a senate candidate received 603 votes but was awarded more than 1,200. At another, where 513 people were eligible to vote, 814 ballots were cast. Similar irregularities have been reported in the states of Valle, Cesar, Cordoba, Narino Magdalena, Bolivar and Sucre.

Sure, there are some honorable lawmakers. But given the manner in which many win their seats, it’s no wonder the Colombian Congress is synonymous with scandal.

In the 1980s, the late cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar served briefly in Congress. A decade later, about a dozen of legislators were accused of receiving payoffs from the Cali cartel.

In 2004, Salvatore Mancuso, a right-wing death squad leader who was later extradited to the United States, was allowed to address the Colombian Congress as if he were a foreign dignitary. And more than 100 distinguished members of the current Congress have come under investigation for collaborating with paramilitaries.

These are the kinds of folks Colombia’s next president will have to work with in order to get anything done. Buena suerte! (Note: that means “good luck” in Spanish.)