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In Colombia, a vote in hope for peace

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It was close, but in the end President Juan Manuel Santos prevailed in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election, winning another four-year term and a mandate to negotiate an end to Colombia’s 50-year war with the FARC guerrillas. Santos won a bit less than 51 percent of the votes, compared with his right-wing rival, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who garnered 45 percent on promises to take a tougher line with the guerrillas.

Santos’ government began formal talks with the FARC in late 2012. With preliminary agreements on three of five points, the negotiations have gone further than any previous effort to end the conflict. Only days before the vote, Santos revealed that the government also has been engaged in preliminary talks with a second guerrilla group, known as the E.L.N.

Zuluaga – along with his political mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe – had been sharply critical of all this peacemongering. He threatened to break off the talks unless the FARC agreed first to end all hostilities, and criticized Santos for being willing to concede too much.

Even though Zuluaga lost the vote, the president will not be able to ignore the sentiments of his supporters. Nearly half the electorate implicitly backed demands that guerrilla leaders be made to pay for their crimes with at least some time in jail.

Santos also will face fierce opposition from Uribe’s Democratic Center party, which will occupy 19 seats in the Senate in July. The president says that impunity for the guerrillas is not on the table, but FARC leaders repeatedly have said that they have no intention of serving time behind bars.

More broadly, Colombians cannot live on the promise of peace alone. The nation has a wide range of problems, and if Santos’ second term is to be considered a success, he will need to address all of those problem. Bringing peace to his country would be a resounding achievement – but it is not the only achievement Colombia needs.

"He’ll have to advance on social issues, on inequality, things that really touch people’s lives today," says Pete Brodnitz, a political strategist who worked on the Santos campaign, "because peace could take time."

Santos’ legislative priorities include passing health-care and judicial reforms that were scuttled in his first term, redistributing royalty payments from mining and oil companies, eliminating the option of presidential re-election and increasing presidential terms of office to five or six years.

These are areas in which Santos will attract the scrutiny of the left as well as the Uribistas. Many leftist parties offered him their support in the election campaign because of the peace process. With Zuluaga safely out of the picture, though, they have gone back to their own corner. To what extent they cooperate in his second term will depend on the extent to which his priorities are compatible with theirs.

The political peace dividend is real, therefore, but it is not in itself the end of the story.

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