Colombians vote in elections seen as test for peace deal

A Colombian casts his vote with the help of his son during the legislative elections in Bogota, Colombia March 11, 2018. — Reuters pic
A Colombian casts his vote with the help of his son during the legislative elections in Bogota, Colombia March 11, 2018. — Reuters pic

BOGOTA, March 12 — Colombians cast their votes yesterday to elect a new Congress with a resurgent right, bitterly opposed to a peace deal that allows leftist former rebels to participate, expected to poll strongly.

The election is set to be the calmest in half a century of conflict in Colombia, with the former rebel movement FARC spurning jungle warfare for politics, and the ELN — the country’s last active rebel group — observing a ceasefire.

Voting passed off peacefully and polls closed at 4pm after eight hours of voting.

“This is the first election in half a century when we will vote in peace, without the FARC as an armed group, but as a political party,” said President Juan Manuel Santos, who signed a peace deal with the FARC in November 2016.

The only reported hitch came when officials ran out of ballot papers for party primaries to designate presidential candidates, which were being held with the legislative vote.

The peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guarantees their new political party 10 of the 280 seats in the new Congress.

The party uses the same Spanish acronym, which now stands for the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, and replaced its crossed-rifles insignia with a red rose.

“It’s the first time in my life that I’ve voted and I do it for peace,” said Pablo Catatumbo, a former FARC commander who is assured a senate seat.

Opinion polls give the FARC little chance of adding to its 10 free seats, following a disastrous campaign during which its rebels-turned-politicians were largely drowned out by a tide of public revulsion over crimes committed during the conflict.

Maria Maldonado, a 65-year-old pensioner who voted in Bogota, was in no mood to forgive and forget.

“I have a lot of memories. Of all the compatriots who were murdered and buried, and nothing happened. And now we’re going to allow these people manage us knowing that they have left us so many tragedies?” she said.

“What is at stake for the FARC is positioning and the possibility of establishing itself with an eye to what really interests it politically: elections” for mayor and governor in 2020, said Carlos Arias Orjuela, a political consultant at Externado University.

The fledgling party suffered a fresh blow only days before the election when its leader, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londono, pulled out of the presidential race after undergoing heart surgery. 

Right closing on victory

With the left divided, the stage is set for hardline conservatives who oppose the agreement to win an absolute majority in Congress, and push on to win the presidential election in a few months.

Opinion polls predict a triumph for ex-president and senator Alvaro Uribe and his Centro Democratico party, along with other parties opposed to the peace agreement that has polarized the South American country.

Under the peace accord, FARC disarmed its 7,000 fighters in order to join the political process, agreed to confess to wartime crimes and pay reparations to victims.

This infuriates many Colombians, in particular the right wing, which is vowing to win the presidential election and amend the peace deal.

But much of the peace agreement has already been implemented, including the rebels disarming and demobilizing.

Analysts say a hard-right government could block the implementation of the rest of the pact, including agrarian reform and the special justice deal under which repentant rebels can avoid jail by paying reparations.

“The mere fact of not applying what has been signed would be enough for this agreement to be ineffective,” said Frederic Masse, an expert on the conflict at Colombia’s Externado University.

Party primaries

With Santos stepping down as president after two terms, a sideshow to the legislative elections is the primary elections for both main political blocs, taking place at the same time.

The first round of the presidential election is set for May 27, with the runoff planned for June 17.

Current polls show conservative Ivan Duque, a former Bogota mayor who is planning to run for Uribe’s Centro Democratico party, leading the presidential race.

Duque is followed by leftist Gustavo Petro — who is seeking to become the first left-wing president in Colombia’s history — and former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo, a centrist candidate.

The vote takes place against the backdrop of economic concern in Colombia, which registered 1.8 per cent growth in 2017, its weakest for nearly a decade.

Candidates were angered when officials ran out of ballot papers for the primaries, citing budgetary problems.

“Due to budget problems, not all cards were printed,” elections registrar Juan Carlos Galindo told reporters. Only 15 million cards were printed for an electorate of 36 million, he said.

Galindo said he had approved of photocopies being used for polling stations where the cards had run out.

Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas, whose office manages to election budget, said the number of printed ballots were made based voters’ records in Colombia, where abstentionism typically runs to around 60 per cent. — AFP

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