http://www.digitaljournal.com/news/world/disarmed-colombia-s-farc-seek-political-rebirth/article/501017

Disarmed, Colombia's FARC seek political rebirth

Posted Aug 27, 2017 by Rodrigo Almonacid and Florence Panoussian (AFP)
Disarmed fighters from Colombia's leftist FARC rebel force sought political rebirth on Sunday as they launched steps to transform into a party and seek elected office after ending a half-century armed struggle.
Onetime FARC commanders Carlos Lozada (L) and Ivan Marquez (2-L) will be the driving forces at Sunda...
Onetime FARC commanders Carlos Lozada (L) and Ivan Marquez (2-L) will be the driving forces at Sunday's founding congress for the rebels' political party
Raul Arboleda, AFP/File

Disarmed fighters from Colombia's leftist FARC rebel force sought political rebirth on Sunday as they launched steps to transform into a party and seek elected office after ending a half-century armed struggle.

About 1,200 delegates from the freshly demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia attended the opening of a founding congress to choose their political representatives ahead of next year's general elections.

"At this event we are transforming the FARC into a new, exclusively political organization," said the force's commander Rodrigo Londono, also known as Timochenko.

He said the group will advocate "a democratic political regime that guarantees peace and social justice, respects human rights and guarantees economic development for all of us who live in Colombia."

Former FARC fighters were bussed in from around the country to join the congress -- such as Jose Edwin Arias, 36.

Arias said he lost both of his hands in an accident while handling explosives during the conflict.

"We are going to launch our plan for society, without weapons," he said.

- What's in a name -

Having completed disarmament last month, the FARC will meet mostly behind closed doors this week to choose a name for the party and election candidates.

Another former commander of the force, Ivan Marquez, said he expected the movement to call itself the Alternative Revolutionary Force of Colombia.

Having completed disarmament last month  the FARC will meet mostly behind closed doors this week to ...
Having completed disarmament last month, the FARC will meet mostly behind closed doors this week to choose a name for the party and election candidates
Raul Arboleda, AFP

However, Timochenko canvassed opinion on Twitter and most respondents favored the name "New Colombia."

Conflict analyst Frederic Masse of Bogota's Externado University said the debate reflected a "dilemma" in the movement.

"Some want to keep the word 'revolutionary' while others want to change that to show that this is a new start," Masse said.

- Seeking votes -

Regardless of how many votes they may win, the peace deal signed with the government last year guarantees the new party five seats in each of the two legislative chambers for two terms.

"We aspire hopefully to achieve an even greater representation," former guerrilla commander Carlos Antonio Lozada told AFP.

Timochenko has ruled out the new party fielding a presidential candidate in 2018. But he said it will support a candidate who guarantees peace.

Center-right President Juan Manuel Santos hailed Sunday's gathering.

"Who would have thought a few years ago that this would be possible," he said. "What we have to do now is reconcile."

- 'Liberal democracy' -

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
Gustavo IZUS, AFP

The FARC formed as a communist movement in 1964 from a peasant uprising for rural land rights.

Now after 53 years of attacks and kidnappings, it faces a struggle for political acceptance.

"For the FARC, political action is not just electoral... it is about winning hearts more than votes," said Jesus Santrich, a senior FARC supervisor in the peace process.

Voters narrowly rejected the peace deal in a referendum last year. Santos and the FARC tweaked it and the government pushed it through congress.

"The FARC will face a number of challenges. The first is not to betray their support base. The second is to enlarge their electorate," said Masse.

"The third is to show that they are capable of doing politics differently and not letting themselves get sucked into traditional patronage politics."

- History of violence -

The Colombian conflict drew in various rebel forces, paramilitary groups and state forces.

It left some 260,000 people confirmed dead, 60,000 unaccounted for and seven million displaced.

The government has opened peace talks with the last active group, the 1,500-strong National Liberation Army (ELN), in the hope of sealing what Santos calls a "complete peace."

FARC leaders and officials warn that remnants of right-wing paramilitary groups are still carrying out attacks in the conflict zones.

"We are afraid that our leaders will be assassinated," said one FARC delegate at Sunday's event, 53-year-old Efren Romana.

The congress in Bogota runs until Thursday. On Friday, the party plans an official launch ceremony.