Colombian former rebels shunned as critics of peace deal dominate election

Farc took a meagre 0.33% of the vote in their first foray into electoral politics – but that might not necessarily be bad for the peace process

Pablo Catatumbo was once one of the most feared men in Colombia. He spent most of his 64 years as a military commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or Farc), plotting the violent overthrow of the country’s government.

This weekend, however, he cast his vote in parliamentary elections, as the former rebels made their first foray into electoral politics after a historic peace deal in 2016.

“It’s the first time in my life that I’ve voted and I do it for peace,” he said after completing his ballot at a Bogotá polling station.

Catatumbo, along with nine of his former comrades, is guaranteed a seat in Colombia’s congress as part of the controversial peace deal that initially failed to pass a referendum.

However, with the scars of half a century of civil war still raw, Colombians widely shunned the former guerrillas’ candidates, instead favouring rightwingers who campaigned on an anti-Farc platform.

The Farc, who kept their acronym when they transformed from an insurgency into a political party, took a meagre 0.33% of the vote.

Meanwhile, the hardline Democratic Centre party – founded by former president Álvaro Uribe and fiercely critical of the peace deal – won 15.89%, the largest share.

Other parties skeptical of the Farc accords, such as Radical Change and the Conservatives, came in second and third.

“For many people it is hard to swallow Farc leaders campaigning on the streets,” said Kristian Herbolzheimer, a Colombia specialist at Conciliation Resources, a London-based consultancy. “Many are furious that people with blood on their hands can run for elections.”

After the Farc took up arms against the state in 1964, about 220,000 people were killed and over seven million displaced. Although it seems unlikely the group will return to war, many Colombians are unwilling to move on.

“On the Farc’s side, these elections are a reality check,” said Herbolzheimer, adding that the Farc would probably not be tempted to return to the jungle. “It is not necessarily bad for the peace process that the Farc did not get many votes – the first step is to normalise their participation in politics.”

Abbey Steele, a political science professor at the University of Amsterdam and author of a recent book on Colombia’s conflict, said Sunday’s results could have lasting implications on the peace process as some laws governing the accord’s implementation have yet to be passed.

“Although no party won a majority outright, together the three rightwing parties have 50 seats in the senate, which will make passing a law very difficult without at least some of their support,” Steele said.

Despite political irrelevance and a creeping anxiety about the glacial implementation of the accord, many rank and file Farc members remain committed to peace.

“We are in a different phase now,” said Jenny, a former Farc fighter, from a camp in Colombia’s eastern plains where she lives with other ex-combatants. “Whatever happens, I’m not going back to war.”

President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his legacy on the peace deal with the Farc, lauded the vote as “the most peaceful that Colombia has had in recent history”. While there were pockets of violence on the campaign trail, there were no incidents at polling stations on Sunday, according to Colombia’s interior minister.

But Santos is ineligible for re-election in May’s presidential vote and with his critics bolstered by Sunday’s results, it is unsure exactly what peace will look like when he leaves office.

In many areas, Farc’s demobilisation has opened space for the smaller ELN guerrilla group, as well as former rightwing paramilitaries. On Monday, Santos announced that peace talks with the ELN would resume, after a six-week pause marked by deaths on both sides.

• This article was amended on 13 March 2018 because an earlier version said that the seats Farc were guaranteed in congress were non-voting.


Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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