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Colombia May Get 1st Female Leader

May 31, 1998

MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) _ A former foreign minister who hopes to become Colombia’s first female president has seen her independent candidacy take off in the months leading up to Sunday’s election.

While Noemi Sanin, a 49-year-old former foreign minister, still trails the candidates from Colombia’s two traditional parties, polls indicated that she has a chance of breaking the monopoly on power they have held for more than a century.

``Noemi, save Colombia,″ one man told Sanin on Friday as she visited her childhood home of Medellin.

``We’ll save it together,″ she replied.

Sanin was making a last-minute attempt to convince Colombians that she can pull the South American country of 38 million out of its malaise. The winner of Sunday’s vote inherits a sagging economy, growing guerrilla and paramilitary violence and strained relations with the United States, which revoked President Ernesto Samper’s visa over drug corruption charges.

For months, polls gave Sanin the highest favorable ratings of any candidate. But when asked for whom they would vote, most chose the top two candidates because they thought she couldn’t win.

One poll this week, however, had her within three percentage points of No. 2 candidate Horacio Serpa of the Liberal Party. The front-runner is Conservative Party candidate Andres Pastrana.

``We’re going to deliver the big surprise. This is going to be historic,″ Sanin, battling bronchitis from a grueling campaign schedule, said during a television interview.

It won’t be easy. She is up against what Colombians call the ``machinery″ of the old parties. Outside the big cities, local party chiefs dish out all kinds of favors _ from school slots to government jobs _ and expect votes in return. In many places, that is the only contact people have with government.

But many Colombians are growing weary of ``patronage″ politics and its attendant corruption.

``The men haven’t done a thing for us in this country,″ said Marleny Velez, a reporter at Medellin’s El Colombiano newspaper. ``Now it’s time to give a woman a chance.″

El Colombiano came out in favor of Pastrana, but nonetheless offered Sanin a savory lunch of Medellin delicacies Friday. Hundreds of employees lined the halls to applaud Sanin.

``This was an act of rebellion,″ Sanin told The Associated Press after lunch.

Children in Medellin gave her drawings. One woman handed her a note telling her ``to request international observers so they don’t rob your votes.″

In a quiet moment inside a Medellin church, Sanin knelt before the altar and said, ``Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.″

Communications minister from 1984-86, Sanin was named ambassador to Venezuela in 1990. Former President Cesar Gaviria later named her Colombia’s first female foreign minister.

If no candidate gets more than half the votes Sunday, as is likely, the top two finishers meet in a June 21 runoff.

``I am going to be a commander,″ Sanin said. ``I am going to take charge.″

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