THE race is on to rewrite Colombia's constitution. In national elections Sunday, voters will select 70 candidates to fill seats in a constitutional assembly that will meet, beginning in February, for about six months to draft a new governing document.
But the election outcome is also significant because it is likely to radically alter Colombia's political landscape, not to mention the nation's governing structure.
Shaking the status quo is the April 19 Movement (M19), a former guerrilla group that laid down its weapons only months ago. The group is expected to win more seats in the assembly than either of two traditional political parties, according to private polls. The group's success has alarmed the political elite and raised the hopes of Colombians previously excluded from the political system.
Colombian law prohibits publishing polls in the month before the election. But the latest private tallies show the M19 winning as much as 40 percent of the vote in the race for assembly seats.
Many Colombians have become fed up, analysts say, with the oligarchic ways of the Liberal's and the Colombian Social Conservatives, parties that have dominated national politics for years.
``The country is tired of traditional politics, and we represent the alternative,'' says Antonio Navarro Wolf, the leader of the M19.
If the M19 does as well as expected, it will face the daunting task of leading the reform drive through a gantlet of ideological and criminal threats.
Many traditional politicians still loath the M19 and its insurgent past. The antagonism between former guerrillas and other parties makes cooperation in the assembly difficult, analysts and candidates say. They add that drug traffickers are sure to try to bribe and threaten assembly members into writing constitutional clauses protecting them from government persecution.
The M19's history of contacts with the cartel lead some Western officials to conclude that the party has been bought by traffickers. Says one official, ``The M19 has yet to convince me that it is not going to represent the cartel in the constitutional assembly.''
Despite the threat of this, almost all assembly candidates have agreed to support desperately needed constitutional changes, including strengthening the country's judicial system and reducing congressional corruption.
``The assembly will be a maelstrom,'' says Alejandro Valencia, a Bogot'a political scientist. ``But both good and bad things may arise out of the chaos.''
The M19 is accustomed to such turbulence. It fought the government for 16 years before disarming and launching its political program last April. Weeks later, an assassin shot and killed Carlos Pizarro Leong'omez, then leader of the movement and its first presidential candidate.
The killing did not stop the M19's meteoric rise. Mr. Navarro won third place in May's presidential elections and became the first former rebel to serve in the Cabinet when President C'esar Gaviria Trujillo named him health minister in August. The M19 leader resigned two months later to run for the assembly.
The M19's apparent lead in the race has been met by mainstream politicians' attacks.
In public debates and local press columns, Liberal and Conservative politicians remind Colombians of the M19's violent past, marked by kidnappings and attacks on government installations. M19 leaders received a government amnesty for past crimes when they laid down their arms.
Alvaro Gomez, leader of the National Salvation Movement, a conservative splinter party, summarizes the diatribe against former guerrillas in one sentence: ``The M19's immoral acts have gone unpunished, but they are not forgiven.''
The campaign manager for a Liberal Party candidate is even more succinct. ``The M19 are a bunch of murderers,'' he says.
The hatred and fear of the former guerrillas resulted in red-baiting rarely seen even in Colombia, where thousands of leftist leaders have been assassinated.
In recent weeks, Navarro has had to defend himself and his party against charges that they are Marxist wolves in sheeps' clothing. Navarro's response - that the M19 is a nationalist, not a Marxist Marxist party.
The M19's constitutional platform calls for changes endorsed by the traditional parties, including increased spending for Colombia's battered judicial system and an end to pork-barrel funds used by congress members to bolster political support.
Navarro calls ``ridiculous and unfounded'' opponents' claims that the M19 plans constitutional clauses doing away with private property and emasculating the military. Even M19 leaders admit, however, that the campaign has caused support for the party to drop. ``The verbal violence has had an effect, but it has not been devastating,'' says Ramiro Lucio, an M19 representative on the Bogot'a city council.
Some candidates say the anti-M19 campaign has hurt not just the party, but the entire constitutional debate by drawing attention away from the real issues.
``It seems to me that people are confused and indecisive about the assembly,'' says Ricardo Banquero Narino, a Liberal Party candidate. Political leaders say Colombians' apathy leads them to expect a high abstention in Sunday's vote.
M19 leaders say they will be in a stronger position after the election, no matter the result.
``This campaign has helped us strengthen our grass-roots organization,'' says Ana Teresa Bernal Montanez, an M19 assembly candidate.