Two presidential candidates representing the political parties that have dominated government here for nearly six decades were headed for a runoff after splitting the vote in closely fought elections Sunday.
With almost 96% of the ballots counted, Ernesto Samper of the ruling Liberal Party held a negligible lead over Conservative Party candidate Andres Pastrana. The elections were unusually peaceful though marked by widespread apathy.
Samper, an economist and lawyer who favors adjusting government economic policies to help the poor, had 45.1% of the vote; 44.9% went to Pastrana, a former mayor of Bogota, television newscaster and enthusiastic champion of free-market economics. The results represented the closest election in Colombian history.
Turnout, however, was low, with 67% of Colombia’s 17 million eligible voters staying away from the polls.
Because Colombia’s 1991 constitution requires the winner to receive an absolute majority, Samper and Pastrana will face off in a second round June 19, a matchup seen as a contest more of traditional party loyalties and personalities than of policies.
“I am voting for Pastrana, because he plans to help young people, because he was a great mayor of Bogota and because I like the way he speaks,” Adriana Reina, 23, said as she voted in Bogota’s 16th-Century Plaza Bolivar.
Although turnout was light, die-hard party loyalists turned out en masse, their bodies plastered with stickers of their candidates, as hawkers of fruit and sodas rolled their pushcarts through the streets.
Thousands of troops stood ready for possible violence. Leftist guerrillas and Colombian armed forces clashed in the rural states of Caldas and Huila, but no other major incidents were reported.
Law enforcement officials say the campaign has been the most peaceful in recent memory. During the 1990 elections, three presidential candidates were assassinated by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cocaine cartel, and dozens of other people were killed by car bombs set off by drug terrorists.
Samper and Pastrana have both been victims of the violence. Samper survived an assassination attempt in 1989 and carries four bullets in his body, while Pastrana survived a 1988 kidnaping.
Escobar was shot and killed by police in December, and drug war violence has dropped off considerably.
“The elections have begun in total peace,” President Cesar Gaviria said Sunday after he cast his vote. The president, barred by the constitution from running for reelection, urged Colombians to turn out to “defeat violence and consolidate democracy.”
But in contrast to the 1990 elections, when controversy raged over how to deal with drug trafficking and violence, this election has stirred little passion among the majority of Colombia’s voters.
Neither Samper nor Pastrana has offered concrete solutions to the chronic problems of narcotics and guerrilla warfare. Neither is seen as a particularly forceful leader.
Both Samper and Pastrana favor continuing the current government’s policy of plea-bargaining with drug traffickers who turn themselves in, a policy attacked by Washington because many of the sentences have seemed overly lenient.
Although the Gaviria government scored a victory in killing Escobar, the Cali cartel has since emerged as the world’s biggest supplier of cocaine. The Cali cartel is less confrontational in its violence than the Medellin traffickers, but it has been adept at infiltrating many levels of Colombian government, according to law enforcement officials.
The main differences between Samper and Pastrana are economic: They disagree about how much the state should intervene to help the poor and disadvantaged in one of the hemisphere’s most unequal nations.
Pastrana, 39, has promised to continue with Gaviria’s free-market program without major changes, while Samper, 43, has proposed some adjustments, such as selective tariffs and subsidies to protect sectors vulnerable to foreign competition. He would slow privatization of state industries and increase spending for the poor and those most hurt by the free-market policies.
Reflecting the lack of enthusiasm in Sunday’s election, many voters expressed their dissatisfaction by leaving blanks on the ballot.
“These candidates all say the same garbage, only in a different way,” said university student Constanza Garcia, who was preparing to cast a blank ballot in the middle-class neighborhood of Alcazares. “This is my protest against the system and the lack of choices.”
Claudia Castillo, a producer of television commercials, added: “I’m not happy with either candidate, but I’m going to pick the least bad, which is Samper. I’m worried that if Pastrana wins, the country will be run by his father, who was a very bad president.”
Pastrana’s father, Misael Pastrana, was an unpopular Conservative president who held office from 1970 to 1974.