Colombia presidential run-off a referendum on peace talks

Colombia on Sunday will hold a presidential run-off that has become a referendum on peace talks under way with Latin America`s oldest insurgency.

Bogota: Colombia on Sunday will hold a presidential run-off that has become a referendum on peace talks under way with Latin America`s oldest insurgency.

The mastermind of the talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is the incumbent president, Juan Manuel Santos. His opponent Oscar Ivan Zuluaga is fiercely opposed to the negotiations

The rebel army rose up nearly 50 years ago as part of an insurrection by poor farmers in a country with a huge gap between haves and have-nots.

The moment of truth has come for Santos, who says the talks, which began in November 2012 in Havana, are in their "final phase."

As he seeks a second four-year term, Santos is running neck-and-neck with Zuluaga in public opinion polls.

Santos, 62, has couched Sunday`s election in simple yet big-stakes terms. He says voters must choose between "the end of the conflict or an endless conflict."

Beaten in the first round of voting on May 25, the center-right Santos has managed to rally leftist parties -- albeit opposed to his free market economic policies -- by promising to spend more on social welfare issues.

His campaign website says that the "cost of the war" with the leftist rebels is nearly 300 dollars, the minimum monthly wage in Colombia, per second. Santos is promising to do more to help poor people, "the ones victimized by the war", in a country where a third of the population of 47 million lives in poverty, even though the economy is growing more than four percent a year.

"Social issues are more visible but they remain linked to peace, which the president has kept as the central pillar of his campaign," said political scientist Patricia Munoz Yi, a professor at Javeriana University in Bogota.

Zuluaga meanwhile is trying to cash in on some Colombians` skepticism over the negotiations with the FARC, which are ongoing despite the lack of a ceasefire between the two sides.

Zuluaga, a 55-year-old former finance minister, says he backs "peace with conditions" and accuses the president of offering the guerrillas impunity.

That prospect touches a raw nerve in Colombia. The conflict, a violent cocktail of rebels, paramilitary militia and criminal gangs, has left more than 220,000 people dead and forced five million people to leave their homes.

Zuluaga has said he will "review" agreements reached so far in the peace talks -- on reform to distribute land more equitably among the poor and rich, letting former guerrillas get involved in politics, fighting drug trafficking and offering retribution to victims of the conflict.

But since the first round of the presidential election, Zuluaga has softened his tone. He no longer says he would immediately suspend talks with the FARC.

And he now says he would give the FARC rebels a month -- not just a week -- to surrender their weapons.

The FARC have not responded to these demands, simply renewing a temporary truce for the run-off. "The opposition candidate has shifted to a position that is less combative with regard to the peace process, but he still insists that no concessions be made to the FARC," said Munoz Yi.

Santos says the terms set by his rival, who also wants a minimum jail term of six years for FARC leaders, is tantamount to a scuttling of the peace process, albeit in a subtle way.

"The election is a very simple referendum: the people of Colombia are going to decide whether they want to achieve peace quickly or return to an all-out war as a formula for ending the conflict," said a close advisor to Santos.

Zuluaga`s candidacy is getting a boost from the popularity of conservative former president Alvaro Uribe, who fought the rebels hard while in office from 2002 to 2010.

Now a senator who leads the main opposition party, Uribe assails his successor Santos, who served as his defense minister, for "becoming the FARC`s fool."

With just days to go until the election, Santo pulled an ace out of his sleeve this week -- an announcement that his government was also in peace talks with Colombia`s other rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN.

Zuluaga accused him of manipulative electioneering.

Founded in the 1960s, the ELN and the FARC are the last leftist guerrilla armies still operating in Colombia. They boast 2,500 and 8,000 fighters, respectively.

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