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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Besieged Samper Asks for Vote on Fate

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Saying it would be "an act of cowardice'' to resign, President Ernesto Samper suggested holding a referendum to decide whether he should leave office over charges he accepted drug money during his campaign.


In a televised address, Samper said stepping down would promote a "dangerous situation'' and a vote would let the nation decide his fate.


"Colombians have the right, and above all the obligation, to participate in the solution to this problem,'' Samper said Wednesday.


Samper's support has eroded rapidly since his jailed ex-campaign chief said this week the president was aware the Cali drug cartel funded his 1994 election bid with millions of dollars.


A lawyer for Fernando Botero, Samper's 1994 campaign manager, alleged Wednesday that Samper himself solicited drug money.


"Of course, it was Samper who made the order,'' attorney Fernando Londono said. "Only two people on the campaign had that power, Samper and Botero, and it wasn't Botero.''


In a poll by Bogota's El Tiempo newspaper, 62 percent said they believed Botero and 20 percent believed Samper. Eighteen percent were undecided or did not respond. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percent.


Business leaders urged Samper on Wednesday to step down temporarily while prosecutors investigate.


"He is seriously weakened in the exercise of his authority,'' a group of 15 national business associations said in a statement.


A referendum, even if approved, may not end Samper's woes; it would likely take months to organize and would not affect the government's probe into his campaign.


Meanwhile, Samper's support within his own party and government continued to slip. On Wednesday, a leader of his ruling Liberal Party urged him to step down, and Francisco Posada, his ambassador to Venezuela, resigned.


Botero, a former defense minister who was arrested in August, said he became increasingly frustrated because he was being made a scapegoat.


Samper has said Botero is lying to save himself. He said that if drug money from the Cali cartel -- the world's biggest cocaine syndicate -- entered his campaign, it happened behind his back.