BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's former leftist guerrillas face their first electoral test as a political party Sunday in congressional voting also seen as a measure of the strength of the country's factions two months before presidential elections.
Analysts see the balloting for the Senate and House of Representatives as a test of the democratic viability of the FARC, whose fighters laid down their arms following a historic peace pact last year and converted into a political movement. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia gave their new party the same FARC initials as the rebel group.
"The FARC are in a tough position," says Leon Valencia, a former combatant who now directs the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a political think tank.
"If they get a low turnout, as is expected, their congressmen will be shunned. They will not be seen as true representatives of the people," said Valencia, referring to the fact that the FARC is guaranteed 10 seats in congress under the terms of the peace deal that ended more than a half century of brutal conflict.
Casting a shadow over the FARC's political ambitions is the recent decision to withdraw its candidate from the presidential race for health reasons. Former rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, more commonly known by nom-de-guerre Timochenko, underwent successful hearth surgery last week and earlier suffered a stroke.
The ex-rebels have also expressed fears of irregularities in the electoral process and difficulties accessing campaign funds. Some of Londono's campaign stops had been met with protests. The FARC's leaders have said that despite these "obstacles" they are hoping to prove they have a future in Colombia's political landscape.
"There are parts of the country where people support us," Pablo Catatumbo, a FARC commander now running for the senate, told Colombia's Caracol Radio. "In many regions of the country we have been received enthusiastically, with horse parades and motorcycle shows."
Opinion polls and political analysts, however, suggest the composition of Colombia's congress will not change drastically with the former rebels receiving little support. Center-right parties, whose lists are stacked with regional electoral barons, are expected to take around 60 percent of the seats.
The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation says that 65 politicians tied to corruption scandals could win seats because of their ability to buy votes in rural and impoverished areas.
"This election will help us to measure just how much politics has changed in Colombia," Valencia said.
Many see Sunday's voting mainly as a test of the strength of Colombia's parties ahead of May presidential elections.
The elections will include two presidential primaries: one for leftist candidates and another for candidates backed by conservative movements.
Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogota who was a guerrilla fighter in his youth, is widely expected to win the leftist primary. The conservative primary will likely be won by Ivan Duque, a pro-business candidate and close ally of former President Alvaro Uribe, who has criticized Colombia's government for giving too many legal and political benefits to former rebels, whose formal party name is now the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, or FARC in Spanish.
Petro is a fiery orator running on an anti-establishment platform and currently leads presidential polls with support hovering around 25 percent. He has promised to make Colombia less dependent on oil and mining exports. But polls in Colombia can be unreliable.
Presidential elections will take place in Colombia on May 27, but there is a crowded field of candidates and pollsters doubt that any of them will garner enough votes to win the race outright. The most likely scenario is a runoff in which Petro would face a conservative or centrist candidate.
In a recent visit to Washington, Petro described himself as someone who is "outside the establishment."
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