BOGOTA: Columbian voters showed lukewarm support for peace talks with guerrillas Sunday by giving the country’s president a majority in Congress, but also electing his conservative rival, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, to the senate.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office in 2010 after serving as the popular Uribe’s defense minister, is engaged in talks with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels aimed at ending their half-century insurgency.
Uribe, who vehemently opposed the talks when they opened in late 2002 in Cuba, was elected senator Sunday with strong support.
Nevertheless Santos’s center-right coalition won 47 of the 102 senate seats, according to official returns with nearly all of the votes counted.
In the lower chamber, Santos supporters won 91 of the 163 seats, official returns show.
The vote “is an important sign for the country and the whole world that the immense majority of us want peace,” Santos, who is up for re-election on May 25, said late Sunday.
Santos then extended an olive branch to the ex-president.
“I also want to congratulate senator Uribe,” he said. “I hope that we can leave aside the hatred and resentments, and can work for the country.”
Uribe’s 2002-2010 tenure in office was characterized by a military crackdown — ironically, led by Santos — that decimated the FARC’s top leadership. He opposed all negotiations with guerillas, and left office with high approval ratings.
While Uribe’s Democratic Center party does not have enough clout by itself to thwart legislation, he has become the de facto opposition leader and now has a bully pulpit to oppose the talks.
He could also be a major problem if Santos reaches a deal with the FARC that has to be approved by Congress.
“The vote for Uribe is a punishment vote for Santos. It questions his negotiations with the FARC,” said Vicente Torrijos, an analyst with the Rosario University.
The results “are not good for Santos,” opined Mauricio Vargas, a top political columnist for the daily El Tiempo.
He wrote that Uribe’s group has the largest presence in Congress as a single party, “while all of the parties belonging to Santos’s coalition lose seats.”
Campaigning on the slogan “No to impunity,” Uribe became Colombia’s first ex-president to seek a Senate seat.
Uribe, 61, accuses Santos of treason, saying he had turned the FARC into “political players” with a high-profile stage in Havana, where the talks are being held.
“Today we voted against the Castro-Chavismo that some want to bring, that the government is supporting,” Uribe said Sunday, a reference to leftist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.
He said that his party supports “a country that has no hesitation to oppose terrorism.”
The Harvard-educated son of a large estate owner killed by FARC rebels in 1983, Uribe is known for his prodigious energy and work ethic.
Voting is not compulsory in Colombia, and the abstention rate was nearly 60 percent, according to official estimates.
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. Although the parties are legal and democratic, fairly or not they are associated with the armed struggle, analysts say.
An added complication is the lack of a ceasefire between the government and the guerrillas 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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