Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the Marxist FARC guerrillas are in jeopardy, following presidential elections in the South American country.
Sunday's election pitted President Juan Manuel Santos, a supporter of the talks, against four contenders who represent a wide range of political ideologies.
Santos asked voters to re-elect him so that he can conclude negotiations with the leftist rebels, which have been going on for 18 months already in Cuba, but only managed to get 25 percent of votes on Sunday.
He will now have to face a run-off election on June 15 against Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a conservative candidate who is a harsh critic of the peace talks, and who gained 29 percent of votes on Sunday, beating Santos by roughly 500,000 votes.
Santos, Zuluaga set for June 15 presidential run-off in Colombia
This result worries supporters of the peace talks. Talks which would conclude five decades of war with the Marxist rebels.
“If Zuluaga wins in the second round, the peace process will take a nose dive,” said Leon Valencia, an analyst of Colombia’s war and a former member of the ELN, Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group.
“The FARC will not accept the conditions imposed by [the Zuluaga camp] because they are basically asking the guerrillas to surrender,” Valencia said.
Zuluaga said on Sunday that he would pursue negotiations with FARC leaders, who command an estimated 10,000 troops across Colombia.
But the conservative candidate would drastically change the terms in which those negotiations are carried out, imposing conditions that would likely break up the current talks, taking place in Cuba.
For starters Zuluaga has said that he would freeze negotiations for a week upon taking office. Talks would not continue unless the rebels stop conducting operations against civilians and military personnel, and are able to prove it through international observers.
“Those conditions are extremely difficult for FARC leaders to accept,” said Vicente Torrijos, a political analyst at Bogota’s Rosario University who has closely followed the talks. “They would go against the FARC’s identity as a rebel group.”
Zuluaga has also suggested that he would scratch agreements made between the Santos government and the rebels on issues like rural development, drug policy and the FARC’s entry into civilian politics, arguing that these deals have been made in secret without the consent of Colombia’s population.
“That would place the peace negotiations in a state of crisis,” Valencia said.
SOME COLOMBIANS WANT A TOUGHER APPROACH
Zuluaga’s hard-line approach to bargaining with the FARC, is actually favored by thousands of voters who have lost faith in the current negotiations.
That’s because rebel attacks on the military, civilian populations and public infrastructure, have continued at a steady rate even as peace talks are taking place in Cuba.
According to the Peace and Reconciliation foundation, a think tank in Bogota, the FARC conducted 2,075 “armed acts of hostility,” in 2013, which included mostly attacks by snipers and sabotaging of infrastructure projects like gas pipelines, but also the detonation of bombs in remote towns that are caught in the frontlines of the war.
“We can’t continue to be humiliated by terrorists,” said Wilman Cote a former marine who voted for Zuluaga and attended his victory party in Bogota.
Cote survived a FARC ambush in 2002, in which 15 soldiers were killed by the guerrillas. “This [Santos] government is giving privileges to the FARC, the worst criminals in Colombian history,” he said as a group blared vallenato music on stage.
Supporters of Santos are hoping that the peace talks bear fruit however, even if violence occurs while negotiations take place.
“We’ve made too much headway to drop this now,” said Alexandra Nieto a Santos supporter who attended a rally for the president on Sunday night. “This could be a historic election for us,” Nieto said.
Santos supporters wave peace flags at rally for the president in Bogota Sunday night.
A TIGHT RACE
With the second round of the election just three weeks away, Santos and Zuluaga will have to seek alliances with the three candidates who lost in round one.
These candidates include Marta Lucia Ramirez from the Conservative party, the Green Party’s Enrique Penalosa and leftist candidate Clara Lopez, who garnered between them around 40 percent of the votes on Sunday.
Torrijos, the political analyst, believes Zuluaga has it easier in the second round because supporters of Ramirez and Penalosa also have a beef with the current peace process and tend to look for candidates who are “tougher” on crime.
But Leon Valencia thinks that Zuluaga will be weakened by an ongoing investigation that links him to Andres Sepulveda, a hacker who was stealing confidential information about Colombia’s peace process.
Zuluaga first denied he even knew Sepulveda, but a recent video published in local media shows him with the hacker, and forced Zuluaga to awkwardly evade questions on the issue during recent presidential debates.
“Zuluaga will be mired by judicial investigations and by the perception that he’s been lying,” Valencia said.
Zuluaga and Santos will also have to reach out to the large chunk of Colombians who did not turn out to vote on Sunday, due to lack of interest in any candidate.
Only four out of 10 Colombians participated in the election, and 5 percent of those who did show up cast a blank ballot because they did not identify with any of the candidates.
Many Colombians upset with politicians cast blank ballots in Sunday's election.
Gustavo Bolivar, a telenovela script writer who lead social media campaigns for the “blank vote” said that he would not back anyone in round two, even if peace talks with the guerrillas are at stake.
“I cannot vote for any of these candidates” Bolivar said. “All of them have been involved in violence and corruption in this country.”
Santos has made no shame of playing the peace card. In his post election speech on Sunday he asked Colombians to vote for him on June 15, in order to keep the talks with the rebels alive.
“In three weeks Colombians will have two choices,” Santos said. “They can back those of us who want the war to end, or those who want war without end.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.