Colombians vote for a new Congress
Colombians vote for a new congress that will tackle legislation for the next president and play a historic role in creating laws to end five decades of conflict if peace is reached with Marxist FARC rebels.
The ballot is likely to consolidate President Juan Manuel Santos as the frontrunner for a second straight term in a presidential vote on May 25, allowing him to continue talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that could end the war and transform Colombia's political makeup.
"This election is different, it's distinct. It's the most important congressional election in 50 years," said Senate candidate Juan Manuel Galan. "Congress not only receives the mandate of the people, but the mandate of peace."
Up for grabs are 168 seats in the lower house and 102 in the Senate. One of the Senate seats is being sought by Santos' right-wing predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, a fierce critic of the government who believes the FARC should be beaten on the battlefield.
The still-popular Uribe is expected to win the Senate seat easily, raising the temperature in congress as he may seek to block legislation that could enable FARC rebels to enter the political system without serving considerable jail time.
"The role of congress is going to be very important post-conflict and in the construction of peace after any accord is signed," said Alejo Vargas, a political science professor at the National University in Bogota.
"At least one sector of the right opposes (a peace deal) because it believes surrender or a military end is more desirable. ... The composition of the new congress will determine how much of an obstruction the right could be."
Some 32 million Colombians are eligible to vote, though congressional elections have a particularly high abstention rate. The government said it will deploy 260,000 members of the armed forces to maintain security during the election.
Formerly a Santos ally, Uribe's Democratic Center party may well draw votes away from the government's center-right alliance of parties, which has supported Santos over the last four years.
While Santos, 62, has solid backing from about 80 percent of lawmakers, including the Conservative, Liberal, Green, Radical Change and U parties, Uribe could dilute that.
The ex-president became the de facto opposition and Santos' fiercest critic shortly after backing him for office in 2010.