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Colombia Candidates Fail to Inspire Voters, Offer Hope : Latin America: Leading presidential contenders are seen as traditional politicians with nothing new to contribute.


CHIA, Colombia — As dusk darkens an old Spanish plaza here, Ernesto Samper, shooting victim and presidential candidate, preaches his resurrection to the crowd in this Bogata suburb.

"I was closer to death than to life, but I was given a second chance, a chance many of my generation never got," he says, recounting a 1989 assassination attempt by drug barons that left four bullets in his body.

The Liberal Party candidate campaigns as the heir to the dreams for peace represented by the slain political heroes of the 1980s. But outside the confines of the party, few Colombians seem moved.

As they head into Sunday's presidential election, neither Samper nor the other leading candidate, Andres Pastrana of the Conservative Party, has inspired voters or offered concrete solutions to the drug trafficking and guerrilla war that plague the most violent country in the Americas.

Both leading candidates are seen as traditional politicians with nothing new to offer, and absenteeism is expected to be high Sunday. Weary of poverty and violence, Colombians have grown more cynical, while candidates have grown more timid.

The candidates also are in a complicated position where the United States is concerned, not wanting to appear overly lenient toward drug traffickers but also not wanting to appear to have capitulated to U.S. criticism of Colombia's drug policies. Consequently, the issue is largely avoided.

"These men know that if they talk about drug trafficking and the guerrillas, they will polarize the electorate and lose votes," political scientist Alejandro Reyes said.

When asked, Samper and Pastrana say they support the government's policy of plea-bargaining with drug traffickers who turn themselves in. But they add that prison sentences should be firm.

Colombia, the world's largest cocaine exporter, has come under attack from U.S. authorities for allowing some of the country's most notorious traffickers to negotiate light sentences.

Tensions between Washington and Bogota have soared in recent months over the use of plea-bargaining by Colombia's chief prosecutor, Gustavo de Greiff.

And the U.S. State Department condemned a recent decision by Colombia's highest court to legalize the possession and consumption of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine.

Both Samper and Pastrana say they would take measures to make drugs illegal again.

Colombia scored a major success in the drug war last year when police hunted and killed Medellin cartel chieftain Pablo Escobar.

But the government of President Cesar Gaviria has failed miserably in efforts to tackle the rival Cali cartel, which now controls most of the cocaine and a growing portion of the heroin trade.

Colombia's 17.1 million voters, meanwhile, exhibit deep cynicism.

Colombians have been repeatedly promised peace by politicians, but they continue to suffer the world's highest homicide rate, the longest guerrilla war in South America and widespread human rights abuses. They watched the assassinations of three presidential candidates during the 1980s, as well as the murders of a justice minister and scores of other politicians, police agents and journalists.

Political reform, envisioned in a 1991 constitution, has failed to open the system to mass participation. And with two former guerrilla groups self-destructing as political movements, there is no alternative to the traditionally elitist, two-party system.

"I don't see any enthusiasm for these elections," said Jorge Child, an economist and social critic. "The opposition has ceased to exist."

Polls differ in giving the lead to either Samper or Pastrana, but no candidate in the field of 18 contenders is expected to get more than 50% of the vote, meaning a runoff will probably be held in three weeks.

Pastrana, a onetime TV news anchorman and the son of a former, unpopular president, has sought to dispel voter apathy by casting himself as a candidate above narrow party allegiance. The 39-year-old former mayor of Bogota is handsome and telegenic. Like Samper, he has been a victim of Colombia's violence: He survived a 1988 kidnaping by the "Extraditables," a group of traffickers fighting Colombia's extradition treaty with the United States.

But many critics denounce Pastrana as superficial and say his blind support for Gaviria's free-market economic reforms smacks of "savage capitalism."

Samper, a 43-year-old former senator, minister of economic development and ambassador to Spain, is more cerebral. He is a keen technocrat with a razor-edged wit, who promises to introduce more social investment.

But his image as the product of a traditional political machine that has produced many corrupt politicians detracts from his message, and he has proposed little new on the problems of violence.

Three other candidates, including Antonio Navarro Wolff, the former head of the M-19 guerrilla movement, have done little to liven the campaign. Together, they are expected to tally less than 10% of the vote.

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