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

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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.

Colombians reminisce about the last presidential contest, when charismatic idealist Luis Carlos Galan was a candidate and many people believed a new, more open democracy was about to be born.

Galan sought to broaden Colombia's closed system to include minorities and the masses. But he was gunned down by Medellin cartel assassins and replaced by Gaviria, his campaign chief, who promised a grieving nation that he would pursue the martyr's ideals.

Today, as a result, Colombia is a different country. Some former guerrillas have been brought into the political process, there is a new constitution and, with Escobar's demise, the vicious Medellin cartel has been disbanded.

But Gaviria has failed to rein in human rights abuses by the military and police, nor has he been able to control the "social cleansing" operations of vigilantes who kill street children and indigents on a chillingly regular basis.

He has failed to reach a peace agreement with an estimated 5,000 guerrillas, and he has been unable to reduce the flow of drugs out of Colombia, or to bring its biggest traffickers, the Cali cocaine cartel, to justice.

Allegations of drug money in the campaign have circulated widely here and abroad. Samper and Pastrana emphasize their honesty, but both have been brushed by the smear of narcotics.

During the trial in Florida of former Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega, Samper was accused by Carlos Lehder, a top member of the Medellin cartel, of accepting a check for 20 million pesos (then about $367,000) from the cartel while Samper headed the presidential campaign of Alfonso Lopez Michelsen in the early 1980s. Samper denied the charge and was cleared by an investigative commission here.

Pastrana's 44-year-old cousin, a vice consul at the Colombian Embassy in Uruguay, pleaded guilty to money-laundering in Miami this year and was sentenced to 33 months in prison.

From a personal and policy perspective, drugs are too hot a topic in this election. Instead, Samper and Pastrana have only really felt free to talk about the economy in a country where 46% of Colombia's population lives below the poverty line.

Pastrana supports Gaviria's neo-liberal reforms, including a reduction in tariffs and regulations, which have allowed businesses to compete internationally. Samper talks like a social democrat, emphasizing more spending on health, education and housing, and for thousands of out-of-work farmers. He insists there is a strong relationship between economic success and peace.

"What happened in Chiapas could easily happen here if we don't manage the social costs and create new standards of living," he said, referring to the peasant-led rebellion in the southern Mexico state.

But few people are tuned in to the details of economic policy. The contest could well be determined by party loyalists.

"There's no difference," one Bogota resident said. "This is an election between Tweedledee and Tweedledum."

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