The FARC guerrillas are set to enter electoral politics. Is Colombia ready for them?
ON SEPTEMBER 1st thousands of members and supporters of the FARC thronged the central square of Bogota. At any other time in the past 50 years, such a sight might have meant that Colombia's government had collapsed. But the group was not there to celebrate a military victory for the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a feared guerrilla army. Instead, the fans were hailing the launch of the FARC (Common Alternative Revolutionary Force), a new political party.
Just 20 years ago, Colombia was nearly a failed state. From 1992-99, two-thirds of the world's kidnappings occurred there, and the FARC controlled up to a third of the country's territory. But starting in 2002, the government of Alvaro Uribe unleashed the army against the guerrillas, crippling them militarily. His successor, Juan Manuel Santos, kept up the pressure but also invited the FARC to peace negotiations.
After four years of talks, the two sides struck a deal in 2016. The terms were controversial. Most rank-and-file FARC fighters were granted amnesty, and their commanders were free to run for office. In a referendum on October 2nd voters narrowly rejected the pact, forcing the parties to redraft it and adopt it in Congress.
Nonetheless, opponents of the accord--led by Mr Uribe, who is now a senator--could not halt its momentum. On August 15th the guerrillas handed over the last of their weapons. The FARC will now take its fight to the ballot box. And if peace is to last, the rest of Colombia will have to accept it as a legitimate political force.
So far, the FARC's most visible choice has been its defiant name. The initials are synonymous with bombs and abductions. Ivan Marquez, a former guerrilla leader, admits that the name is a liability. Nonetheless, he says, "it also represents our history." The FARC maintains its leftist ideals, and insists it has not surrendered. And the way it made the decision reflects its embrace of democracy. Over 1,200 delegates to its founding convention voted on a new name, and "FARC" won with 628 votes.
The FARC has also kept up its combative spirit while funding restitution for its victims. Its list of assets included boots, orange juicers, weapons it had already given up and roads it had built. Rafael Pardo, the minister for post-conflict issues, called the declaration a mockery of the exercise.
Walking the walk
At the same time, the ex-guerrillas have proved willing to break with their past. Their property disclosure also contained land, cattle, 267,520 grams (8,600 ounces) of gold and $450,000 in cash, for a total value of $328m. And both their video ads on social media and the speeches at their convention were devoid of Marxist claptrap. Instead, they focused on issues such as health care and job security.
At the convention, Rodrigo Londono (pictured, left), the FARC's president, said it would campaign "without dogmatism or sectarianism, far from ideological ostentation". Railing against corruption may be the best strategy. A recent Gallup poll found 87% disapproved of Colombia's current political parties, which have been discredited by scandals and infighting--higher than the 84% disapproving of the FARC.
The FARC's transformation may prove even harder for existing parties than it is for the guerrillas. Looking at peace deals between 1975 and 2005, Aila Matanock of the University of California, Berkeley, found that conflicts reignited within five years in 56% of cases which did not include terms for ex-rebels to take part in electoral politics, but only in 21% of those that did. That suggests that turning the FARC into a normal party might help secure the peace. The FARC will not field a candidate in the 2018 presidential election, but does seek a share of power. Mr Marquez says, "We want to be the government or part of it."
So far, however, the FARC's image remains too toxic for most politicians to snap selfies with Mr Londono. The party invited a wide range of politicians to its convention, but none showed up. And Mr Uribe and fellow opponents of the peace deal continue to criticise its implementation.
Moreover, FARC members fear falling victim to the political violence they have now renounced. Since they began demobilising in January, at least 17 of them or their relatives have been killed. Even though the ELN, a smaller leftist guerrilla force, has agreed to a temporary ceasefire, and the leader of the country's strongest criminal gang has offered to surrender, illegal armed groups continue to operate in Colombia. None of the 17 murders has been solved.
The FARC's first political test will be at congressional elections in 2018. The accord grants the party five seats for two terms in both houses of Congress. The FARC will seek to have sympathisers elected in 16 special districts set up by the peace deal, where it may enjoy surprising support. For years, it acted as a de facto state in rural areas with scarce public services. Voters in such regions will probably look kindly on the infrastructure and development projects the FARC extracted in peace talks.
The FARC's convention ended with a concert. People cheered, danced and flew flags with its new rose-and-star logo. Public support for the FARC still makes Colombians uncomfortable. But they are better off with ex-guerrillas wielding instruments in the streets rather than guns in the jungle.