Conflict-torn Colombia sees peaceful elections

Colombians vote for mayors and governors that will play a crucial role if the country signs a peace deal.

colombia poll
Thousands of people in Bogota got in line to cast their vote in a peaceful, almost festive atmosphere [Alessandro Rampietti/Al Jazeera]

Some 34 million Colombians are registered to vote in Sunday’s regional elections.

They are choosing mayors, governors, and municipal councils that will play a crucial role if the South American country finally signs a peace deal with the rebel group FARC. Negotiations have been going on for nearly three years in the Cuban capital, Havana.

A peace deal could be signed in the next six months and it will be those elected now who will be tasked with implementing the reforms that could come with an agreement.

Opening the election proceeding in the Capital, Bogota, on Sunday morning, President Juan Manuel Santos said he “hoped these would be the last elections in the middle of the conflict”.

Since 8:00am local (13:00GMT), when polls opened in Bogota, thousands of people got in line to cast their vote in a peaceful, almost festive atmosphere.

So far these have been the most peaceful elections in decades, some say ever in the country.

The FARC announced a unilateral ceasefire in July which was largely respected.

The MOE, a Colombian electoral observation organisation, says campaign violence has since plummeted.

That is, if you compare it to previous years. Six candidates have been killed and one is missing. In contrast with 41 who were murdered in 2011. On voting day, there has been only one incident so far. A soldier was killed in clashes with the second biggest rebel group in the country, the ELN.

But while the level of violence tapered off, fraud and corruption keep being rampant. Over a thousand candidates have seen their eligibility revoked after being caught lying or hiding their finances. Election authorities voided more than 1.5 million voter IDs for various irregularities.

At least one candidate for mayor is expected to win while in prison. And a former Congressman, Yahir Acuna, accused of having ties with paramilitary groups, was stopped by the police two days before the elections with 482 million pesos (over 150 thousand dollars) in his car.

The money allegedly was going to be used to buy votes for his wife, Milene Jarava, who’s running for Governor of the Sucre department.

Overall the MOE says at least 40 percent of the municipalities are at risk of some level of fraud.

Even so here in the capital Bogota people are hopeful about these elections and the country’s future.

At the city centre, families took a stroll together to reach their polls. And many stayed after voting to take part in the proceedings.

One of them is Carolina Coronado, a lawyer, who said people are looking for change. And that everyday problems such as crime, infrastructure, and mobility are more important than peace in the voter’s mind.

But others say these local politicians will play a fundamental role once the peace deal is signed. “We need to expand the role minorities play in our society, and we need to expand our social welfare,” Virgelina Chará, an Afro-Colombian citizen, told Al Jazeera. “We need whoever is elected to be in accord with the peace process.”

In Bogota, people are casting their vote to replace outgoing leftist politician, Gustavo Petro, a former rebel with the M-19 rebels group which signed a peace deal with the government in the early 1990s.

He has been widely criticised for the rise in petty crimes in the city (even if murders are down), the worsening of the transportation system and botched attempts at reforms.

Overall leftist parties have ran the city for 12 years, but corruption scandals in previous administrations means they might lose their grip on power.

Centre-right candidate Enrique Penalosa, a former Bogota mayor and ex-presidential candidate, has been leading the polls.

While in Medellin, Colombia’s second city, Juan Carlos Velez, a cousin of hawkish former president Alvaro Uribe is favoured to win. They both oppose the peace process. The strength of Uribe’s Centro Democratico party after these elections is something to keep an eye on.

Their candidates will be the most reluctant to accept and implement the peace process in the country.

Results should be in Sunday night.

Source: Al Jazeera