Colombia’s leftist FARC rebel group has introduced its political party at a conference that began on Sunday, a major step in its transition into a civilian organisation after more than 50 years of war and its first chance to announce policy to skeptical voters.
The six-day meeting in Bogota of FARC members, who have handed in more than 8,000 weapons to the United Nations during their demobilisation, is expected to conclude on Friday with a platform that the party, still officially un-named, will campaign on in elections next year.
“From this event on, we will transform into a new, exclusively political group that will carry out its activity by legal means,” FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, who is known by his nom de guerre “Timochenko,” told hundreds of attendees at the event centre in Bogota.
“We have in front of us many challenges and many difficulties. Nothing is easy in politics.”
Under its 2016 peace deal with the Government to end its part in a war that killed more than 220,000, the majority of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fighters were granted amnesty and allowed to participate in politics.
Whether Colombians, many of whom revile the rebels, will be inspired to back them remains to be seen.
The FARC’s often old-fashioned Marxist rhetoric strikes many as a throwback to their 1964 founding, but proposals for reforms to labyrinthine property laws may get traction with rural voters who struggle as subsistence farmers.
The peace accord, rejected by a less than 1 per cent margin in a referendum before being modified and enacted, awards the FARC’s party 10 automatic seats in Congress through 2026, but the group may campaign for others — the FARC is open to coalitions, the group said this week.
In a sight that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, FARC delegates arrived by bus to the centre of the capital, escorted by police on motorcycles.
“I think the FARC will try for a regional consolidation, using the presence and influence they have in certain provinces,” said Catalina Jimenez, politics professor at Externado University.
“At a national level they need a large amount of votes they still don’t have.”
Fractured by in-fighting, leftist parties have long struggled in conservative-leaning Colombia, despite some success in winning urban positions.
“We have to define our course of action, which will surely bring up the need to have coalitions,” FARC secretariat member Felix Antonio Muñoz told reporters on Friday, adding the group wanted a “big political convergence that redefines the limits of the left”.
Colombia’s “semi-feudal” state will need to be modernized, and the country must wake up to the scourge of corruption, Mr Muñoz said.
Both legislative and presidential elections will take place in 2018. It is not yet clear for which positions the FARC will field candidates.
Widespread corruption scandals will likely be a top issue for the crowded field of 2018 presidential candidates, as will bettering the daily lives of Colombians, many of whom say improvements to security, public education and health care are desperately needed.
The FARC says the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos, which gives a certain amount of regulated funding to each party, should help carry the costs of the conference, given the rebels have handed over their assets to be used as reparations for victims of the war.
But though the peace deal is the cornerstone of Mr Santos’ legacy, the Government has raised doubts about the veracity of the rebels’ $324 million asset list, creating a commission to check the FARC have included all profits they may have earned from extortion, ransoms and drug trafficking, and saying the group must play by the same rules as any other party.
The new party has no official name yet, though one rebel leader has said it could be called the Revolutionary Alternative Force of Colombia, preserving the FARC initials in Spanish.