Colombians vote to end long civil war

Sibylla Brodzinsky

Having won a close race, returning President Juan Manuel Santos vows to work towards peace.

A police officer stands next to a mural of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota. It is hoped that Santos's re-election will end one of the world's longest-running internal conflicts. (AFP)

Colombians have elected Juan Manuel Santos to a second term as president to continue pursuing a peace deal with leftist guerrillas to end more than 50 years of internal conflict.

With 50.9% of the vote, Santos, heading a centre-right coalition, defeated the right-wing Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who won 45% in one of the tightest races in recent history.

“Colombians have voted for the hope of swapping fear for peace,” Santos said on Sunday amid cheering followers who waved their hands with the word paz (peace) written on their palms.

Though many Colombians say that their main concerns are jobs and insecurity, the debate in the campaign centred on the issue of the peace process that Santos’s government began with leftist FARC rebels in late 2012. Several days before the vote, the government announced that it has begun preliminary talks with a second rebel group, the ELN.

Zuluaga, who ran as a candidate of a party created by ultraconservative former president Alvaro Uribe, has been sharply critical of the talks with rebels, accusing the president of offering the guerrillas impunity for their crimes, which include kidnapping, killings and mass forced displacement. Santos has said impunity is not on the table in the talks, which are being held in Havana.

Zuluaga won the first-round vote in May, but Santos sealed his victory by uniting political forces, including leftist parties and independents, around his promise of peace. “To those who supported me because they support peace, I take that backing as an immense challenge,” Santos said. “We will not fail you.”

FARC and government negotiators have reached preliminary agreements on three of five points on the agenda, in what is considered the best chance ever for Colombia to end its conflict. But the most contentious issues – transitional justice and decommissioning – have yet to be discussed.

Zuluaga, in his concession speech, said the voice of the nearly seven million Colombians who voted for him “will have to be heard”.

When peace talks began, Santos raised hopes that a peace deal could be reached, saying the negotiations would last “months and not years”. Support for the talks lagged and opinion polls have shown that, although a majority of Colombians want to see their country at peace, they doubt the current process will be successful.

But the outcome of the vote showed a renewed hopefulness. “This election was an advance referendum on peace,” said pro-Santos senator Armando Benedetti. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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