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Colombia vote seen as referendum on rebel peace talks

10 march 2014, 22:47
0
Colombians went to the polls on Sunday to elect new legislators, in a vote seen as a referendum on peace talks with leftist guerrillas and a bellwether for May's presidential election, AFP reports.

The voting, which got under way at 1300 GMT, comes with the government locked in talks with Marxist rebels which have dominated political life in Colombia since the negotiations opened in late 2012.

President Jose Manuel Santos, who is expected to announce his bid for re-election this week, is expected to retain control of the bi-cameral Congress, a tacit endorsement of his government's peace talks strategy.

"Up to now these elections have been far safer and peaceful than ever; I hope it remains this way," said Santos Sunday as he cast his vote.

Santos's government has been negotiating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America's oldest insurgency, which has been at war with the Colombian state for 50 years.

"It is highly likely that the president will retain a strong majority," said Sandra Borda, professor of political science at the University of the Andes in Bogota.

"Although many Colombians have their doubts about the process, they will not go so far as to reject it. They do not want it to end," she said.

One big question will be how Santos' predecessor Alvaro Uribe does in his quest for a Senate seat.

'Uribe's dissonant voice'

Uribe, a conservative, is still popular for his no-holds-barred fight against the FARC while in power from 2002 to 2010.

Campaigning on the slogan "No to impunity," he is Colombia's first ex-president to seek a seat in the Senate, from which he aims to challenge the course of the talks.

But his new party, the Democratic Center, is projected to win only about 14 percent of the votes, which would give it just 19 of the 102 senate seats.

Uribe accuses Santos, his former defense minister, of treason by turning the FARC into "political players" with a high-profile stage in Havana where the talks are being held.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Colombia's internal conflict, which involves two guerrilla groups, paramilitary fighters and criminal gangs.

All sides have also been involved, directly or indirectly, in the drug trade.

Leftist parties, which are traditionally weak in Colombia, have failed to benefit from the peace talks.

"The left is in a very delicate position because it supports the peace process advocated by the government," Borda said.

At the same time, although the leftist parties are legal and democratic, they are associated with the armed struggle, analysts say.

An added complication is the lack of a ceasefire during the peace process.

Jorge Armando Otalora, the People's Ombudsman or national mediator, has said that illegal groups including the FARC have exercised "pressure and intimidation" on voters to keep them from voting in at least one-fifth of the country.

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