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Santos talks up peace as fear of defeat grows

Colombia''s President, and presidential candidate, Juan Manuel Santos (left) and his vice-presidential teammate Germán Vargas Lleras celebrate after registering their candidacy at the national electoral office in Bogotá earlier this month.

New survey shows Colombian president would lose office in eventual run-off

BOGOTá — President Juan Manuel Santos said yesterday that Colombia was on track to seal an historic peace deal that would “change the history” of his country, as he sought to underline the importance of peace talks with the FARC guerilla group ahead of this year’s presidential elections.

Speaking to Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, Santos also hinted that a possible deal would hit the world’s supply of cocaine hard, as it would include the eradication of coca plantations.

“Hopefully by the end of the year, we will have this deal done,” he told the newspaper. “It is a tipping point. We have started not only conversations with the FARC, but a process whereby we are building the conditions to build peace for ever, not just for one or two years, but to change the history of this country.”

The president will be keen to talk up the chances of 2014 being a landmark year for Colombia, and if a deal to end the planet’s longest-running civil war was sealed under his leadership, he could expect a big bounce in the polls, which could translate to support at the ballot box.

Santos is up for re-election in May, and the vote is expected to be hotly contested. Just last week in congressional elections, former Colombian president álvaro Uribe re-emerged as a political force, with his newly-formed right-wing party taking a big chunk out of the current leader’s majority.

The conflict with the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has been running for 50 years and most Colombians have lived their entire lives with the conflict hanging over their heads. Negotiations will also strongly impact on the positions of other guerrilla groups, most notably the the National Liberation Army (ELN), who are yet to agree to peace talks with the government. Both the FARC and the ELN have spent years battling government troops and paramilitary groups.

Santos said yesterday that the FARC needed to recognize the opportunity in front of them, saying it was time for the group to “continue their objectives through the legal democratic means.” Pointing out that “many former guerrillas in Latin America are now heads of state,” he said the group should “think about it.”

The biggest improvement to the country, should a peace deal be signed, should in theory be a drop in crime, with many armed groups financing their activities through drug-trafficking, kidnappings and ransoms.

Santos was keen to point out yesterday that a deal would aid the war on drugs worldwide, predicting that it was likely any agreement with the FARC would include the erradiction of coca plantations.

“If we can agree to fight drug-trafficking and substitute coca crops for legal crops, it will have a big impact on the world because, unfortunately, for 40 years we have been the principal supplier of that drug,” he said.

The mentioning of drugs, one of five key topics under discussion with the guerrilla group, caused analysts yesterday to suggest an announcement on that subject will come soon, with the president’s team hoping to win him a bounce in the polls ahead of election day. But talk may not save Santos, with his popularity dropping of late, as evidenced by the recent congressional elections.

Second round run-off?

A survey yesterday indicated that Santos, the candidate for the Social National Unity Party, will face strong competition in the presidential elections in May, reporting that he will likely face a runoff against Green Alliance candidate and former mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa.

The poll, carried out by Datexco and published in the capital’s El Tiempo newspaper, found that the incumbent would take 25.5 percent of the vote compared to Peñalosa’s 17.1 percent, if the election was to be held now. Ranking third, with 14.6 percent, was Colombia’s former finance minister Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who will stand for the new right-wing party, the Democratic Centre — which was founded by Uribe.

Trailing in fourth was veteran leftist Clara López Obregón, with 10.7 percent, and former defence minister Marta Lucía Ramírez, who took 7.7 percent.

An additional problem for the incumbent president is the number of “blank votes” that voters are likely to cast. The survey placed that figure at 16.9 — enough to almost finish third.

The figures will be of concern for Santos, who in another poll just one week ago was scoring 34.7 percent of voter’s ballots. Zuluaga’s support has risen by nearly four percent in the same period.

Also worrying the president will be the figures regarding a possible head-to-head. Datexco’s survey recorded that 40 percent of voters would subsequently back Peñalosa in a hypothetical second round, compared to Santos’ share of 37.1 percent.

The news, which will clearly worry the president, expectedly delighted his rival.

“Thanks to our supporters, if the vote were held today we would beat the president (candidate) in a second round; I am clear that it is only a survey and that what we need to do is very difficult, but we are enjoying today very much.” Peñalosa posted on Twitter.

Herald with AP, Télam

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