By the time Juan Carlos Pastrana, 28, was ready to walk from his apartment in downtown Bogota to voting booth 808 on Calle 19 this morning, the broad avenue was already a festival of political chanting and sloganeering, a colorful Sunday carnival that provided a sharp contrast to the grim and tense scene at the Embassy of the Dominican Republic, about two miles away.
While 32 hostages, including 12 ambassadors, spent their 11th full day as captives of heavily armed M19 revolutionaries, several million Colombians went to the polls to elect municipal councils and state legislatures.
The electrons demonstrated again that Colombia is a functioning, if imperfect, democracy. The wildest range of parties participate, from communist parties aligned with Moscow and Peking to the United Movement of Regina XI. Regina describes herself as a witch and her symbol is a broomstick.
In Botota alone,there were 52 slates of candidates, representing more than 1,000 names in all, for 20 seats on the city council. Throughout the country, 48,803 voting booths serve 13,772,836 eligible voters. They could choose from 37,000 candidates for 8,617 seats on the municipal council and 406 seats in 22 departmental legislatures.
Despite such numbers, however, Colombia's democratic system is commonly acknowledged here to be in trouble -- not so much because of leftist guerrillas such as those who seized the embassy, but because of what journalist Daniel Samper calls the "politics of anesthesia": fewer than 35 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls two years ago when President Julio Cesar Turby Ayala was elected and only about 30 percent of the voters were expected to participate today.
The two traditional political parties, Turbay's Liberals and the Conservatives, nominally headed by 1978 presidential candidate Belisario Betancur, are increasingly viewed as corrupt and ignored by Colombians -- especially the urban and rural poor -- who do not vote despite the wide variety of parties and candidates.
"They do not see the system responding to their specific problems," said Pastrana, whose father, Misael Pastrana of the Conservative Party, was president from 1970 to 1974. "I guess that the great mass of people is ready for change. The thing is that many politicians are afraid to talk of change."
Last week, both of the traditional parties urged the voters to demonstrate their support for the democratic system -- and opposition to the armed revolutionaries who seized the embassy Feb. 27 -- by turning out today in massive numbers to vote.
But there was no indication along the Calle 19, where Botoga's unregistered voters may cast their ballots by presenting their national identification cards, that the parties' call had brought more voters to the polls.
Cecilia Contreras de Lopez, 25, the mother of two young children, said she had come to vote for the first time, but that her decision had nothing to do with the siege at the embassy. She said she was concerned about the 30 percent inflation rate last year and she voted for the Moscow-line Communist Party because she thought it promised better opportunities to participate in vocational training programs.
Helber Melo, 20, a garment worker, said he would vote for Turbay's Liberal Party list because he thought the current national government was best able to solve Bogota's housing, education and unemployment problems. Asked if the embassy siege had anything to do with his decision to vote, Melo said, "No, I'm really not very well informed about that."
When Juan Pastrana found the voting booth with his identification number listed, shortly before noon, he was only the ninth of the 444 persons assigned to that booth to have voted since it opened at 8 a.m. He duly cast his ballot for his father's wing of the conservative party, one of six lists of different factions of the party put forward for the 20 seats on Bogota's unpaid city council.
Turbay's Liberals, even more badly split, presented 17 different lists. In view of some political observers here, this suggests that the country's predominant political party is falling apart under the strain of corruption and Turbay's failure to provide answers to social problems. Other observers, however, suggest that the divisions in both parties reflect healthy infighting that could result in new and more socially aware leaders in the future.
Despite Colombia's poor distribution of income and the malaise that voters have demonstrated toward the traditional parties, the democratic left here has never received much popular support. Similarly, the various urban and rural guerrilla groups, which have been able to pull of spectacular raids like that on the Dominican Embassy, have not excited the popular imagination.
The badly split left attempted to unify for today's election. The coalition, called FIRMES, based its appeal on the simple tenets of honesty in government and social change through the democratic process. However, several of FIRMES' leaders have acknowledged that the coalition still has little support among the working class and the poor. They also feared that its middle-class supporters might desert it as a result of the embassy's seizure. FIRMES tried to counter these fears by condomning the leftist M19's occupation of the embassy.
Juan Pastrana may have expressed the general feeling here when he said before he voted this morning that the embassy seige "is a very grave situation but I really don't think it will affect this election in a very significant way."
The carnival atmosphere on the Calle 19 reflected more than anything the fact that Colombia's political parties are still able to turn out thousands of workers, pay for musical groups and plaster posters all over the city.
But what they have not been able to do in recent years -- and what they did not seem likely to do today -- was to excite a large majority of Colombia's voters to the point of voting.