Colombia to Elect New Congress in Gauge of Peace Talks Support

Colombians will elect a new Congress this weekend in a vote that will gauge support for President Juan Manuel Santos’s attempts to secure a peace deal with Marxist guerrillas.

Voters will elect all 102 Senators and 166 Lower House Representatives on March 9, in an election that pits Santos’ allies against former President Alvaro Uribe, whose Democratic Center Party opposes the negotiations with the rebels.

“These elections aren’t typical because, apart from peace, there hasn’t been any other issue of great relevance,” said Alejo Vargas, Professor of Political Sciences at the National University, speaking in a phone interview from Bogota. “The next Congress will have an agenda that’s very focused on topics related to the post-conflict.”

The government has been holding peace talks in Cuba since 2012 with guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in a bid to end a civil conflict that began half a century ago. A strong showing for Uribe’s allies will make it “rough going” for Santos if he wins a second four-year term in presidential elections in May, said Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialog in Washington.

“He’s had a very favorable and supportive Congress,” during his first term, Shifter said. “If Uribe has a very strong showing, that could substantially change, and make it complicated for Santos to pursue his agenda in a second term.”

“Terrorist Paradise”

During his first term Santos was backed in Congress by his own U Party, as well as by the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, and the Radical Change Party.

Polls show that he will win the May presidential election in a second round of voting. Santos would get 28 percent of votes cast in the first round, versus 8 percent for Uribe ally Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, according to a poll published March 3 by Semana Magazine. The survey of 1,201 people had a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

Uribe and his supporters oppose any deal that would give FARC leaders immunity for crimes, or which would allow them seats in Congress. Uribe also advocates a tougher line on the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, whose country he has described as a “paradise” for terrorists and drug traffickers.

Uribe, who supported Santos’ candidacy in 2010, now attacks him repeatedly on Twitter and in interviews, accusing his former defense minister of squandering security gains made during his own presidency between 2002 and 2010.

Pipeline Bombings

The number of homicides fell to 15,234 last year, down 3.7 percent from 2009, the year before Santos took office, while other crimes including burglary, vehicle theft and sexual assault increased, according to data collected by the Defense Ministry. Guerrilla attacks on oil pipelines increased sevenfold over the same period, even after the armed forces tracked down and killed the FARC’s top two leaders, and dozens of its mid-ranking commanders.

In a Dec. 3 speech in Washington, Santos said it would take another five decades to wipe out the guerrillas militarily. In an interview last September, the President said that voters would support a deal containing unpopular measures such as the transformation of the FARC into a political party and special treatment in the justice system for crimes committed by guerrillas, as part of a package that ends the conflict.

“With many seats, or with few seats, Uribe’s goal is going to be to obstruct Santos’ government,” said Claudia Lopez, a Senate candidate for the Green Alliance, in a phone interview.

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