Fragile peace deal on agenda as Colombia prepares for polls

AFP , Tuesday 8 May 2018

File Photo: Cuba’s president Raul Castro (C) looks as Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos (L) shakes hands with FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, after signing a historic ceasefire deal (Photo: Reuters)

More than a year after a historic peace agreement, Colombians set to vote in a crucial presidential election this month still fret about corruption, inequality and a surge in drug trafficking-related violence that threatens a fragile treaty with the rebel group FARC.

Despite a peace dividend reflected in the lowest homicide figures in decades, campaigning for the May 27 election has taken place against an upsurge of violence between armed remnants of former rebel movements involved in drug-trafficking, mainly along the country's borders.

Outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos, whose government has been accused of failing to implement key elements of the peace deal, said recently that Colombians "have an enormous challenge ahead" to consolidate peace.

Santos, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term, was one of the chief architects of the peace deal with the FARC that brought to an end decades of conflict, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016. Now disarmed, the rump guerrilla movement has transformed itself into a political party.

But the agreement is far from complete. And its implementation will be one of the chief tasks of Santos' successor.

Violence has broken out in some areas abandoned by the FARC and dissident rebels have joined up with armed groups.

"The next president of Colombia will have to decide to apply it as it is or to modify it," said analyst Cristian Rojas, head of the political science faculty at La Sabana University.

Favorite to succeed Santos is Ivan Duque, a 41-year-old lawyer who has spearheaded opposition to the peace deal. He is running for the Centro Democratico party led by senator and former president Alvaro Uribe, who has built a political career on a tough stance against the guerrillas.

Colombia's five-decade conflict drew in paramilitary groups and state forces in what became a many-sided war fueled by drug trafficking, leaving about 260,000 people dead and seven million displaced.

If elected, Duque "will likely pose a problem for the major structural reforms that are planned in the framework of the agreements, such as electoral reform, land reform," said Yann Basset, head of the Observatory of political representation at Rosary University.

In the polls, the CD candidate is 10 points ahead of his leftist opponent Gustavo Petro, a 58-year-old former Bogota mayor who was once a member of the now disbanded M-19 guerrilla movement.

But neither Duque nor Petro has enough momentum to carry the election in the first round, analysts say, likely leaving the left contesting a runoff for the first time in Colombia's history.

Behind them come Sergio Fajardo, a centrist candidate with 12 percent, former vice president German Vargas Lleras with 7.5 percent and former peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle, with 2.5 percent.

But the trend can change. "There's a lot of volatility in preferences," said Basset, who said the rise of the left, boosted by a promising showing in recent legislative elections, is explained by the fact that 'there isn't as much fear of the guerrillas as before".

The FARC failed to get even 1.0 percent of the vote in March legislative polls and it leader, Rodrigo Londono, pulled out of the presidential election after heart trouble.

There is also a "climate of discontent with the political class, with many corruption cases in the last two years, and the famous Odebrecht scandal," Basset said.

The Brazilian construction giant has admitted paying out $11.1 million in bribes in Colombia. State prosecutors believe the full amount paid to the political elite is much higher, more than $27 million.

Violence and insecurity in former FARC strongholds pose another challenge for the incoming government. Dissident former rebels as well as drug lords and members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group fighting for control of the cocaine market, of which Colombia is still the world's largest producer.

"There is a very strong challenge for whoever the president is, and that is to control the territory. The success of the implementation of everything that is agreed on, rests on the state recovering a monopoly of strength, while also making its institutional presence felt," said Juan Cardenas, professor of political science at La Sabana.

"Today, drug-trafficking remains the main threats to peace," Santos warned in his farewell speech to the UN last month. Santos, who is due to step down in August after eight years in office, still dreams of forging a "complete peace" by signing a peace deal with the country's last rebel group, the ELN.

But the kidnapping and murder of two Ecuadoran journalists and their driver in March generated tensions with Quito, whose government no longer wants to host the long-running peace talks.

Beyond the peace deal, the economic challenges remain great. Rich in oil, minerals and precious stones, Colombia is one of Latin America's most unequal countries with one of the highest poverty and inequality rates in the region. Seventeen percent of the 49 million population is below the poverty line, with peaks of over 36 percent in remote areas, according to official statistics.

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