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Santos consolidates support from the left

Colombia''s president and presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos speaks during a campaign rally in Bogotá on Tuesday.
Clara López’s backing could tilt balance in favour of Colombian president ahead of runoff

BOGOTÁ — Leftist politician Clara López, who was defeated in the first round of Colombia’s presidential elections, called on her supporters to back incumbent Juan Manuel Santos in the runoff, an endorsement that could could tilt the balance in the president’s favour ahead of the June 15 vote.

López asked her followers to vote for Santos to keep the peace process with FARC rebels on track.

According to a poll released last week, centre-right Santos and right-wing Oscar Iván Zuluaga — the hand-picked candidate of former president Álvaro Uribe — are neck-and-neck in a tight election race, with just one percentage point between them in voter intentions.

Santos, who initiated peace talks with the FARC in late 2012, is backed by voters who hope the talks can end 50 years of war in which around 220,000 have been killed.

Zuluaga, who has been one of the talks toughest critics, has conditioned the continuation of the talks to the FARC’s agreement to a permanent cease-fire, strict adherence to a timetable, and an end to the planting of land mines and forced recruitment of children.

He appeals to voters who question the FARC’s willingness to disarm and walk away from the lucrative illegal drugs trade even if a peace deal is signed.

Zuluaga won the most votes in the first round of the election on May 25, coming in 3.6 percentage points ahead of Santos.

“I want to announce that I will vote for peace for Colombia led by President Juan Manuel Santos ... I invite Colombians that have supported us to follow me in this decision to guarantee the peace we need,” López told reporters yesterday.

The leftist former mayor of Bogotá, who won 15.2 percent of first-round votes, said last week that the official position of her Polo Democrático party was to leave party members free to vote as they wished. Yesterday, she said her support for Santos was a personal choice that she asked supporters to follow.

Leftist Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro has also announced his support for the president. Petro is a former member of the M19 rebel group.

The defeated Conservative party candidate, Marta Lucía Ramirez, who won a fraction more votes than López, has announced that she will back Zuluaga, though her party is divided and most of its lawmakers have said they will support Santos.

With no new polls released this week, it is unclear if the alliances that the candidates forged in the last couple of days will impact the outcome of the runoff. A director at Ipsos Napoleón Franco told the Herald yesterday that the pollster would release a new survey on Friday.

Conscription

Meanwhile, in a bid to rally Colombians to vote for him, Santos vowed yesterday to put an end to conscription once peace with the FARC is consolidated.

“Once the conflict comes to an end and peace is consolidated, we will put an end to conscription,” the Colombian president said on his Twitter account. Military service is mandatory for all Colombian men over 18 years old.

The president also thanked “soldiers and policemen” and said it is thanks to them that the country is so close to achieving peace. “Only those who are strong in war can negotiate peace,” he added on Twitter.

In an event in Cali, 300 kilometres to the south of Bogotá, Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said that conscription could come to an end “in the medium-term.”

“In five or 10 years, the country is going to move toward a model that is similar to that of European democracies or more developed countries. That is going to happen once the country is completely in peace. It’s a medium-term vision,” he said.

But not everybody agreed with Santos’ proposal. Retired general Jaime Ruíz Barrera — the president of the Association of Retired Officers of the Armed Fources — was shocked by the president’s announcement. “Who is going to defend the country then?” he asked. “It would be like giving the country away to the FARC,” he added.

Around 120,000 young men are recruited every year by the Armed Forces. But because rich families usually have connections with the Army’s highest echelons that get exemptions for their children, most soldiers come from low income families.

“We can proudly say that we have the strongest Armed Forces in our history and we are going to keep it that way in terms of equipment and abilities, but their training and mission will shift because they will no longer have to go into the jungle to look for the guerrilla. We are going to reorient their energy and capacity,” Santos told Blu radio.

He denied, however, that former FARC members could join the Army if a peace deal is reached.

“I hasn’t been contemplated and I don’t think it will,” the president said, referring to issues on the negotiating table in Havana.

Scandals

The last couple of days seem to have shown that Santos has succeeded in turning the runoff vote into a referendum on the peace process. With polls showing that the majority of Colombians favour the continuation of the talks, that could only work in the president’s favour.

But apart from arguing over whether talks should continue, candidates have failed to communicate their proposals to Colombians and the campaign has been marred by a seemingly record number of scandals.

Santos’ chief campaign stategist, Venezuelan Juan José Rendón, was forced to quit after he was accused of receiving US$12 million to lobby in favour of drug cartels.

Zuluaga’s camp, meanwhile, faced its own share of scandals with the arrest of hacker Andrés Sepúlveda, who allegedly spied on the president’s email, as well as those of negotiators in Havana.

A new arrest linked to the Sepúlveda case was announced yesterday in Cauca. Hacker Daniel Bajaña admitted to intercepting communications of former vice-president Francisco Santos and said he worked for Sepúlveda during three weeks but resigned after being asked to hack email accounts.

But Zuluaga’s campaign team was facing new trouble yesterday after a local journalist revealed that the candidate is paying his Brazilian campaign manager close to US$2 million and that he would receive an extra US$2 million if he won. Members of the ruling-party called on the National Electoral Court to investigate the origin of the money.

The campaign manager in question is José Eduardo Cavalcanti de Mendonça, known as Duda Mendonça.

— Herald with AP, Télam, online media

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