After decades of violence, can Colombia's FARC rebels gain voter trust?

Thanks to a 2016 peace deal, the FARC are guaranteed a minimum of 10 seats in this year's congressional election. But can they convince the public their bloody past is behind them?

Manuel Rueda
FARC congressional candidate Valentina Beltrán, speaking to construction workers, hands out campaign fliers in downtown Bogotá, Colombia, Feb. 1.

Valentina Beltrán spent the past 24 years working with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a guerrilla fighter, an educator, and a communications specialist.

Today, she’s running for office, one of dozens of FARC candidates for Colombia’s Congress. It's a controversial part of the peace process that has some hopeful for reconciliation with the rebel group, and others feeling betrayed by the government for granting them this opportunity. 

On a recent Thursday Ms. Beltrán walked down a leafy pedestrian street downtown in Bogotá, the capital, handing out flyers emblazoned with the FARC’s logo.

“If you don’t vote, the same politicians will always win,” she tells a group of construction workers. Many pedestrians reject her flyers, frowning at her, or walking away as she approaches.

“It’s a tough job sometimes, but I think it’s also important to do,” says Beltrán. “We need to break with misconceptions, and help people realize that we are also made of flesh and bone.” 

As Colombia emerges from 52 years of civil strife, the FARC are trying to carve out a new role for themselves. The guerrilla group fought for more than half a century to overthrow the government and spearhead a socialist revolution, a conflict that left an estimated 220,000 people, mostly civilians, dead. Now they are a legal political party, thanks to a 2016 peace deal with the Colombian government. And they will participate in this year’s congressional and presidential elections, fielding more than 70 candidates around the country. 

Like the IRA in Northern Ireland, or the ANC in South Africa, the FARC are hoping that years of armed struggle will translate into significant influence on their country’s politics. But first they have to redefine their image and carve out their place in formal Colombian politics in order to win over a very skeptical public. Most voters here distrust them, and associate the group with reckless acts of violence.

Their entrée into politics will be an uphill battle, analysts say, with few expecting them to win more than their 10 seats guaranteed by the peace deal. But the experience of demobilized rebel groups around the world, and a general sense of discontent with established political parties, offers examples of potential future success, experts say. From Nepal to El Salvador, Paraguay to the Philippines, “surviving politically as a former rebel group is just a matter of time,” says Madhav Joshi, associate director of the Peace Accords Matrix project at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

“It’s not a quick fix,” he says of winning over the public. But rebel groups like the FARC have a surprisingly amount of leverage on their side, namely the social attention and programs they fought for in the peace accord.

Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters
FARC leader and presidential candidate Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timochenko, speaks during a presentation in Bogotá, Colombia on Jan. 27, 2018.

A 'tough brand to sell'

Unlike rebel groups in Ireland or Central America, the FARC are entering politics with minimal support.

While the guerrillas were popular in some remote pockets of the countryside, where they waged most of their struggle, urban Colombians have mostly seen them as a threat. The group was known for conducting lethal car bombs, kidnappings, and other human rights abuses, like the forced recruitment of children. 

FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, who launched his presidential campaign in January, is currently one of the most disliked public figures in Colombia. His support in electoral polls hovers around 2 percent, making him a fringe candidate, with practically no chance of winning the May 27 presidential vote.

A recent spate of bombings in the north by a smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), isn’t helping either. Many voters are already disappointed with the peace deal and the fact that FARC rebels are campaigning for office instead of languishing behind bars. These bombings open old wounds – with the help of politicians who have claimed falsely that the ELN is acting as the FARC’s “armed “ branch. 

“The FARC is a tough brand to sell,” says Elkin Jair Limón Lerma, a former city government official in the oil town of Barrancabermeja. He is now working as a regional campaign manager for the former rebels.

“I think with time, people will notice the FARC have coherent proposals and the ability to make a difference,” Mr. Limón says.

In his home state of Santander, the FARC have campaigned among union groups, environmentalists, and farmers who are seeking greater access to land. The FARC have discussed plans to protect local water sources from gold-mining ventures, promised to stop the privatization of a state-run fertilizer plant, and have talked about improving the local oil refinery.

Limón says that joining the FARC’s new party has given him a chance to advocate for policies he believes in. And he’s not the only civilian joining them. In Bogotá, the FARC’s list of congressional candidates includes a rapper, a transgender activist, and an electrical engineer who wants employees to be compensated for the time they spend getting to work.

“They have been open and listened to our proposals,” says Andrés Camacho, one of the FARC’s civilian candidates in Bogotá. Mr. Camacho is running in a national election for the first time in his life.

A toned-down message

The peace deal signed with the government ensures the FARC 10 seats in Congress for the next eight years, regardless of how many votes they get.  But after that time is up the FARC will have to gain a minimum number of votes to stay on the ballot, like any other party in the country. 

That means it’s essential for the former rebels to improve their image if they want to survive at the ballot box, says Luis Carlos Pacheco, a political consultant here.

“They have to tell the truth about everything that happened,” Mr. Pacheco says.

The guerrillas already seem to be toning down their once-radical discourse in an attempt to get closer to the average Colombian voter.

As their campaigns begin, they have ditched talk of Marxism, revolution, and socialism, for more moderate promises of decreasing income inequality and improving social services. And they have a natural platform in the peace accord they helped design.

“That’s key,” says Professor Joshi, from Notre Dame. “In their election manifest, they can talk about, ‘We negotiated these [socioeconomic issues with the government] and we are the champions for your cause.’ ”

The former rebels’ logo, which bore two rifles, has been replaced with a red rose, the same symbol used by center-left parties in Europe. 

Even the group’s name has changed, from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. The FARC acronym has been kept, though, in an attempt to keep party militants unified.

“A few years down the line, changing the acronym may not be the worst idea,” says Kyle Johnson, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “At a subconscious, emotional level, people link FARC to violence.”

Mr. Johnson believes that in the upcoming election the FARC will not be able to get more than the 10 seats allotted to them. It is just too soon after the war, he says, and the guerrillas lack a solid “ground game.”

But a successful transition into politics is not just in the FARC’s hands. In the past, smaller guerrilla groups have made peace with the Colombian government, only to see their leaders assassinated by right-wing extremists, and their parties diminished as a result.

The Patriotic Union, a socialist party that rose out of a previous round of talks between the government and the FARC, had 3,500 militants killed in the 1980s and ‘90s. The group barely manages to win seats in city councils nowadays.

The Colombian government will have to ensure tough action against paramilitary groups still roaming the countryside in order for this not to happen again, says Robert Karl, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University, who focuses on modern Colombia. “The biggest question mark at this moment is the FARC’s [own] security.”

There’s also the need for cooperation and coalition-building with existing parties, Joshi says. “The chance for a political future hinges on working with” an established party, whether it’s left, right, or center. And, down the line, discontent with established political parties – currently a global trend – could mean a leg up for demobilized rebel groups, which was the case with Maoists in Nepal.

“It’s not only about the social message, but also about the other parties that aren’t delivering” on their promises to the voters, Joshi says.

But, so far no other party running in the election have sought an alliance with the FARC, fearing the association could lose them votes, analysts say.

In the meantime, the FARC’s campaigners will continue to walk the streets like Beltrán, the candidate handing out leaflets downtown, trying to get the attention of skeptical voters.

“The media have depicted us as the enemy” says Beltrán. “We want to break that paradigm and show people here that we are regular folks who also dream of a better future.”

Whitney Eulich contributed reporting from Mexico City.

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