Colombia votes 'to regain dignity'

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THE ELECTION of conservative challenger Andres Pastrana ended the ruling Liberal Party's 12-year lock on the Colombian presidency and is likely to improve the image of a country battered by a drug corruption scandal.

"My foreign policy will aim to restore Colombians' lost dignity, to regain the respect that our people deserve in the international community so that once again we can be proud to pronounce Colombia's name in all corners of the world," Mr Pastrana said last Sunday in his victory speech.

With 98 per cent of the vote counted in the runoff election, the 44-year- old former Bogota mayor, in his second straight bid for the highest office, had won 50.4 per cent versus 46.5 per cent for the Liberals' Horacio Serpa. Voter turnout was 54 per cent.

Mr Serpa served as interior minister under the outgoing president Ernesto Samper, who was accused of accepting campaign contributions from the Cali drug cartel. The scandal crippled Mr Samper's four-year tenure and likely doomed Mr Serpa's presidential hopes.

However, the Liberal candidate's populist rhetoric and lower middle-class upbringing helped win the favour of millions of Colombians who viewed Mr Pastrana, son of the late president Misael Pastrana, as the candidate of the rich.

Last Sunday, Mr Pastrana promised to better the lot of 18 million Colombians who live in poverty. "I'm going to be the president of the poor," he said. "I don't want any more hunger in Colombia."

Mr Pastrana inherits a nation mired in political and economic crises. Leftist rebels took advantage of Mr Samper's weak government to expand their influence and now control 40 per cent of the countryside. Right- wing death squads killed scores of people, and unemployment climbed.

Mr Pastrana promised to make peace his top priority and meet personally with guerrilla leaders.

Compared with previous elections, Sunday's balloting took place in relative peace. Guerrillas attacked two helicopters and ambushed a police truck in two incidents, killing two police officers and wounding six, officials said. Since Friday, guerrillas have kidnapped at least 11 election officials and burned 37 vehicles nationwide.

United States officials had refrained from supporting either of the two candidates. But privately, they acknowledged that a Pastrana victory would be better for US-Colombia relations.