VOTERS IN Colombia go to the polls today, and for Colombian citizens, the outcome of the balloting will be far less remarkable than the fact that the election is taking place at all.

It has been a campaign drenched in blood; no other functioning democracy in the world comes close to Colombia's record for violence. Politicians in that Andean nation have always been fair game, and Colombian society has a long tradition of settling disputes with a gun. (Many still remember the period known as "La Violencia," the decade or so after World War II, when thousands were killed in a war between the Liberal and Conservative parties.) But in this campaign alone, three presidential candidates have been killed -- a dramatic example of the state of politics in a place where politically inspired murders annually outnumber killings committed by common criminals.

For one of the remaining principal candidates, victory will mean the chance to run the country for the next four years. For the rest, defeat will be bittersweet: They will have lost the race, but not their lives.

Still, Colombians have a proud tradition of electing their leaders. There's been only one military government in this century, and that one -- invited to take power in the 1950s by a civilian president who could not control his violent society -- went back to the barracks after its job was done. No other country in Latin America can match Colombia's record of electoral consistency. In a very real sense, therefore, the presidential campaign concluding today has become as much a symbol as a process -- a process of selection of national leaders by constitutional means; a symbol representing a larger effort to hold on to that democratic process.

The candidates murdered since August have been dispatched by assassins who have staged their attacks in public places, in the presence of armed bodyguards and police and without regard for their own lives or other consequences. There is a substantial body of opinion, shared by Colombian and U.S. law enforcement agencies, that the assassinations of the three candidates were paid for, if not actually carried out, by the Medellin drug cartel.

According to this reasoning, in each case but in different ways, the continued candidacies of the three murdered men posed a threat to the multi-billion-dollar international cocaine trade. If such reasoning is correct, it is possible to say that the drug kingpins have monitored the political actions and statements of candidates to sort out -- and eliminate -- their enemies, while at the same time conducting an unwitting but brutal assault on Colombia's government of laws and democratic principles.

Two of the murdered candidates were guerrilla veterans, but from different backgrounds; the third shared with the other two a deep sense of nationalism but differed strongly on domestic issues, especially the extra-dition of drug traffickers. Here, briefly, are their profiles:

Luis Carlos Galan, 42, a Liberal Party candidate widely regarded at the time as the front-runner, was machine-gunned on Aug. 18 while speaking to supporters. His principal offense had been to support extradition of cocaine traffickers who had been indicted in the United States. Galan's murder touched off a wave of violence that continues to this day. President Virgilio Barco Vargas went on national television to declare war against the drug cartel leaders who had claimed credit for the killing, and within a month more than 12,000 people suspected of illegal drug trafficking had been rounded up by police.

"The Extraditables," as the Medellin cartel leaders call themselves, followed with their own declaration of war, and cartel leaders were credited with the mid-air explosion on Nov. 27 of an Avianca passenger jet carrying 107 persons, including five police informants. Ten days later, on Dec. 6, a car bomb was detonated in Bogota, killing more than 50 people and destroying secret police headquarters -- an act for which the Extraditables quickly claimed responsibility.

Bernardo Jaramillo, the second presidential candidate to be murdered, was an up-and-coming leftist lawyer and political understudy in his late 30s who had just won election to a term in the Colombian Senate, and who had led the Union Patriotica for nearly three years. Before that, he had been a leader of FARC, the largest of Colombia's leftist guerrilla groups, but had laid down his guns to practice politics. Jaramillo was machine-gunned on March 22 while waiting with his family and bodyguards for an airplane that would take him to a Caribbean vacation. (Murders of UP party members in 1990 were averaging about one a day by the time Jaramillo was gunned down, prompting debate as to whether Colombians were watching the death of a political party through the assassination of its membership. Those who watch Colombian politlcs say the answer is unequivocally, yes.)

Carlos Pizarro Leon-Gomez, 38, another former guerrilla leader, picked up some of the pieces of the UP after Jaramillo was killed. He helped form an alliance of 12 leftwing groups and was chosen as their presidential candidate. Pizarro had long been a member and leader of M-19, a group responsible for numerous acts of terrorism during the 1980s, but he stepped away from violence on March 8, when he and hundreds of M-19 members signed a peace treaty with the government and turned in their weapons.

With only two days left in the campaign, Pizarro managed to finish third in the race for mayor of Bogota. He then declared his presidential candidacy, campaigning openly in spite of threats. On April 26, on board a commercial flight from Bogota, a fellow passenger walked up to Pizarro and fired 15 rounds from an automatic pistol. Thousands turned out in the days that followed to file past Pizarro's coffin in a national expression of anguish and rage.

There is little doubt that Galan sealed his fate by endorsing the policy of extradition of indicted narcotraffickers. As for the murders of Pizarro and Jaramillo, the Medellin cartel has denied complicity, noting that both were strong opponents of extradition of indicted drug traffickers. While making their denials, however, the Extraditables have explicitly threatened Cesar Gaviria, the front-running Liberal Party candidate; Gaviria, who picked up the mantle of the assassinated Luis Galan, has kept the tough anti-drug plank in his party's platform.

It is easy to see why Colombia's drug traffickers have decided to play such a murderous role in the current election campaign. What they want is an environment where they can operate illegally and freely. Under such a regime the cartels would cheerfully funnel some portion of their multi-billion-dollar annual income into bribes and hardware that could be used to maintain security and stability in areas vital to the cocaine trade, while keeping the national military forces, revived left-wing guerrilla movements and reinforced right-wing paramilitary groups at each others throats.

They seek to create such an environment by scaring the hell out of politicians and law enforcers. and by making peaceful change difficult, if not impossible.

Whither Columbia? It's hard to tell. The dead these days are almost too numerous to be counted, but estimates are that between 18,000 and 23,000 murders were committed in Colombia last year -- a rate of between 56 and 71 per 100,000. By comparison, the United States had a murder rate in 1988 of 8.4 per 100,000. Just this past week, a leading senator and two town councilmen were murdered.

No ship of state can sail on such a sea of blood and call itself a democracy, yet Colombians struggle to preserve their constitutional system, pondering their dwindling choices for today's presidential election even as the murder rate goes off the scale.

In the current political climate, which has been thoroughly polluted by cocaine, the next president will have to face threats -- both to his own mortality and to his country's fragile democracy. He will preside over a people with a pounding hangover from a political campaign badly tainted by violence and ravaged by drugs. And he will have a major role in the debate as to whether Colombia is a nation of laws, or men. He will not have an easy time.

John E. Lennon is deputy chief of the American Republics Division of the Voice of America. The views expressed here are his own.