Colombians vote on historic peace agreement with rebel group | News | DW | 02.10.2016
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Colombians vote on historic peace agreement with rebel group

Polls have suggested that the public will ratify the peace accord by a two-to-one margin. The agreement calls for FARC fighters to reintegrate into society and form a small political party.

Colombians took to the polls on Sunday as the government seeks to ratify a historic peace accord with the FARC rebel group in a referendum, formally ending the country's 52-year civil war.

The plebiscite asked the public to cast a simple "yes" or "no" vote on whether they support the accord President Juan Manuel Santos and the rebel commander known as Timochenko signed last week. Polls show that the "yes" is expected to win by a two-to-one margin.

As part of the peace agreement, around 7,000 of the remaining fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will be allowed to reintegrate into society and form a political party. The party will be allowed to compete in the 2018 presidential and legislative elections, and is guaranteed 10 unelected congressional seats for the next 10 years, though these will not be enough to influence legislation.

President Santos has staked his legacy on the peace deal being ratified in the plebiscite. Ahead of the vote, the government spent heavily on television advertising, concerts and peace rallies, even enrolling the help of U2 frontman Bono and former Beatle Ringo Starr.

If the accord is ratified, the remaining FARC guerillas will begin reintegrating into society almost immediately. The process stipulates that they must first disarm within the next 180 days and move into designated concentration zones within the next six months.

A polarizing vote

The referendum is the final hurdle in ratifying a drawn-out peace process since officials and rebels started negotiations in 2012. In June 2016, the government and FARC leaders signed a ceasefire and disarmament agreement. This paved the way for both groups to formally sign a comprehensive peace accord in September.

The deal proved highly polarizing. The Colombian population fiercely abhors the FARC. The group financed the longest-running conflict in the Americas through kidnappings and extortion, spreading a sense of terror throughout the country that persisted for decades.

Many think the accord spares the rebels from facing prison sentences for their roles in the bloody conflict. Others hold that it insults the 220,000 killed and 8 million displaced in the 52 years of fighting.

Former President Alvaro Uribe has been one of the most outspoken voices of the "No" campaign, arguing that rebels should serve jail time for their crimes. He also said that by appeasing FARC rebels, the government was setting a bad example that criminal gangs would seize on.

FARC serious about reconciliation

However, the leftist rebel group has demonstrated their commitment to realizing the peace deal. Twice in the past week, rebel leaders traveled to hard-hit areas and apologized for the massacres their fighters committed. On Saturday, the rebels said that they would forfeit their assets to pay for victims' reparations.

Speaking at a ceremony in a northern Colombian town where rebels killed 35 people in 1994, FARC leader Ivan Marquez said: "All of us in life have committed mistakes, some with consequences more serious than others."

"There's nothing to lose in recognizing it. Speaking the pure and clean truth heals the soul's wounds, no matter how deep they are."

In the past week, United Nations observers have overseen the rebels' voluntary destruction of weapons, including 620 kilograms of grenades and light explosives.

Should he be successful in the referendum, President Santos is expected to shift attention towards a new tax reform deal, as well as other economic measures designed to recompense the country's drop in oil income. He is also reportedly preparing to begin peace talks with the smaller ELN rebel group.

rs, dm/rc (Reuters, AP)

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