Under Fire, Colombian Leader Calls for the People to Decide His Fate

STRUGGLING to save his tattered presidency, President Ernesto Samper Pizano has called for a referendum to let Colombians choose whether they want him as president.

In opting for the vote, Mr. Samper sidestepped growing calls to resign after his former campaign manager testified Tuesday that the president was fully aware of donations from the Cali cartel to his presidential campaign.

Both campaign manager Fernando Botero Zea and Samper had previously denied allegations of the president's knowledge of the funds. Mr. Botero, who was also defense minister, was arrested in August for accepting money from the drug traffickers.

Samper has called for an emergency session of Congress next week to discuss details of the referendum. But no date was set.

Excerpts of Botero's statement to public prosecutors leaked to the press implied Samper was the driving force behind the infiltration of drug money.

The declarations have stirred up a hornets' nest of anger and confusion. Opposition politicians, and some in Samper's Liberal Party, were clamoring for the president's resignation.

But Samper has dug in his heels. ''I will not resign,'' he declared Wednesday. ''To resign would be cowardly.''

Ironically, the president could have problems from his own Liberal Party, which remains split over what he should do. ''The president should search his conscience and allow Vice President Humberto de la Calle to replace him,'' says Sen. Luis Guillermo Giraldo Hurtado.

Samper is likely to come up against some opposition from other sectors. On Wednesday 15 industrial associations called for the president to temporarily leave office until a judicial inquiry could clear him.

If Samper does gain congressional support for a referendum, it is not at all certain he would win. Most recent opinion polls do not favor the president. In a poll in the leading liberal newspaper El Tiempo Wednesday, 64 percent of those asked said Samper should resign. Only 31 percent thought he should stay.

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