COLOMBIANS are relieved that Sunday's presidential election was not determined by an assassin's bullet.
But the final outcome has not been decided. Since no candidate won a majority, the two front-runners will face each other in a runoff election June 19.
In the election campaign four years ago, three presidential candidates were murdered in fighting between drug traffickers and the government. On Sunday, 100,000 troops were deployed at polling places around the country. Still, nearly 70 percent of eligible voters did not go to the polls. Abstention has been growing, in part due to security concerns.
Liberal Party candidate Ernesto Samper Pizano edged out Conservative Party candidate Andres Pastrana Arango by less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote. The close results reflect the similarity in the candidates' platforms. Both candidates promise to continue opening Colombia to foreign competition.
Mr. Pastrana, a former newscaster, has promised to drop import barriers faster and to negotiate additional free-trade pacts with Brazil and other Mercosur trading-bloc countries (Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay). He sees education as the way to make Colombia competitive in the world economy. A Pastrana government would continue the ``neo-liberal'' policies of President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo.
Mr. Samper, an economist, would slow the pace of free trade while increasing social spending to blunt the unemployment caused by foreign competition. His plan, called ``social capitalism,'' would stem privatization and reinstate farm subsidies eliminated by President Gaviria.
Colombia has a foreign debt of $17 billion and inflation rate of 23 percent, with more than half of the economy in the informal sector. Still, Colombia enjoys a healthy economy by Latin America standards, with a steady growth of between 3 and 5 percent during the last decade.
The relative stability of the economy and the consistency of its policy toward foreign capital make Colombia attractive to multinational investors. A recent $2 billion investment by British Petroleum in the Cusiana oil field will yield royalties that both candidates have promised to spend improving the infrastructure and social programs.
But Colombia is still troubled by its image as a violent society. Though the first country to formally apply for admission to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Colombia suffers from a questionable human rights record, a 42-year-old guerrilla war, and the world's largest cocaine production.
The two candidates made drug trafficking a minor campaign issue. The death of Pablo Escobar Gaviria last December and the subsequent dismantling of the Medellin cocaine cartel curtailed drug terrorism, making the drug trafficking issue a lesser concern for voters.
But the new president will have to face the cartel in the city of Cali, which has taken over 70 percent of the cocaine trade, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. And treatment of the Cali traffickers has become a contentious issue between Colombia and the US. American officials have accused Colombian Prosecutor General Gustavo de Greiff of doling out lenient sentences to traffickers.
Not allowed to succeed himself as president of Colombia, Gaviria will take over as Secretary-General of the Organization of American States on Aug. 7.
Gaviria came to power four years ago, when frontrunning candidate Luis Carlos Galan was murdered. He made two sweeping changes during his four-year tenure. He has involved Colombia in more free-trade pacts than any other country in the hemisphere. Gaviria also led a campaign to write a new Constitution, which was ratified in 1991.
The incoming president must write the regulatory legislation for both these changes and push them through an often recalcitrant Congress. Samper would have an easier time dealing with Congress than Pastrana, since his Liberal Party won a majority in both houses in elections held March 13.
The election is the first presidential race under the new Constitution, rewritten largely to remove main party advantages.
``However, the smaller parties were unable to take advantage of the new rules,'' says Colombian historian Daniel Garcia Pena. ``We find ourselves in the same two-party system that we have seen for many years.''
The field of 18 candidates garnered only 10 percent of the vote. These included former guerrillas that the government enticed to demobilize with the promise that they could participate in politics.