Colombian local elections raise hopes amid conflict

Colombia votes peacefully in local elections, raising hopes that conflict may be ended

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Voting citizens search for their identification numbers during local and regional elections in Bogota October 25, 2015.

Colombians largely spurned far-right and far-left candidates as they elected on Sunday hundreds of local officials who will have a crucial role in implementing any peace agreement reached with leftist FARC rebels.

They were the South American country's first regional elections since the government of President Juan Manuel Santos opened peace talks in Havana with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia nearly three years ago.

Santos hopes to sign a peace agreement by March, to end Latin America's oldest guerrilla war.

"The local and regional authorities who we are going to elect will have a huge responsibility," Santos said, encouraging Colombians to vote.

"If we manage to end the armed conflict in the coming months, they will be held responsible for putting into practice the measures that will allow us a successful transition towards peace."

Colombians elected 32 provincial governors and legislative bodies, more than 1,100 mayors and municipal councils, and other local leadership posts.

The country's most closely watched contest was for the job of mayor of the capital, Bogota - a city of some eight million.

Center-right candidate Enrique Penalosa, a former Bogota mayor and ex-presidential candidate, carried the day with 33 percent of the vote. He will replace outgoing leftist politician Gustavo Petro, a former rebel with the now defunct M-19 guerrilla group.

His tenure has been widely criticised for insecurity and chaotic public transportation in the capital.

"Our government is going to be in name of all citizens, with no exceptions," Penalosa promised. "It's time to get our self-esteem back."

In Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city with 2.5 million inhabitants, Juan Carlos Velez, a protege of hawkish former president Alvaro Uribe who opposes the peace process, had been favored to win. But he was edged out 36 to 34 percent by centrist Federico Gutierrez.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which launched a guerrilla war in 1964, has an estimated 7,000 fighters.

One of the biggest obstacles to a peace agreement was removed on September 23, when negotiators agreed on how crimes committed during the conflict would be adjudicated.

Experts hailed the move as a milestone and Santos vowed that a definitive peace deal could be reached within six months.