Andes Pastrana, a former mayor of the capital, Bogota, looked likely to finish ahead in the race to replace Ernesto Samper, who cannot run for a second term. But Mr Pastrana, a conservative 44-year-old son of the Seventies president Misael Pastrana, is almost certain to face a run-off this month against the second-placed candidate, as he is unlikely to poll 50 per cent of the first-round vote. That will probably be the former interior minister Horacio Serpa, 55, of Mr Samper's long-ruling Liberal Party,
However, Noemi Sanin, the former foreign minister who is bidding to become Colombia's first female president, was closing the gap on Mr Serpa in opinion polls.
Ms Sanin, 49, was helped by an endorsement from one of the country's two most-beloved sons, the former Newcastle United footballer Faustino Asprilla. The other, the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, backed Mr Pastrana, saying he was the man to pull Colombia out of what he called its current "inferno".
Although all four leading candidates are running on a platform of change, Colombians detect few differences in their ideologies. Ending the almost daily guerrilla attacks, kidnappings or massacres by paramilitary groups, and getting the economy back on the rails, is the priority of most of the country's 21 million voters.
During his four-year term, Mr Samper, who was initially accused of receiving cocaine money from the Cali cartel during his campaign, saw the two main Marxist guerrilla groups increase their control to nearly half the country. It is now virtually impossible to drive any distance outside Bogota, Cali or Medellin without running into a guerrilla roadblock and the danger of being kidnapped.
With the army outmanned and outgunned by the guerrillas, paramilitary groups set up by wealthy landowners have increasingly carried out a "dirty war" against civilians they suspect of backing the guerrillas. Last year, more than 1,420 people were killed in what were officially described as "massacres", mostly by paramilitary groups.
"The next president is going to find a country in complete ruins," said the former justice minister Enrique Parejo. "It has to be rebuilt again from scratch."
Neighbouring Ecuador also held presidential elections yesterday to replace the interim president, Fabian Alarcon, with the ghost of the exiled former president Abdala Bucaram, known as "el loco" ("the madman"), haunting the polls. Mr Alarcon was named President last year to fill in for Mr Bucaram after he was ruled "mentally incompetent" by the country's Congress.
Mr Bucaram fled to Panama but is a close friend of one of yesterday's leading candidates, Alvaro Noboa, who is expected to let "el loco" back to Ecuador if he wins the presidency.