* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Will Colombia choose a president who will continue peace talks or one who will suspend them?
“In three weeks, Colombians will have two options: They can choose between those who want an end to the war and those who want a war without end.”
That’s the message Colombia’s incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos gave voters and opposition parties following his defeat in the first round of voting in the presidential election on Sunday.
Right-wing Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a former finance minister, won 29.6 percent of the vote, while Santos trailed with 25.7 percent. The two men now face each other in a runoff on June 15.
The election was largely seen as a referendum on Santos' decision to negotiate a peace deal with the country’s largest Marxist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in hope of ending Colombia's 50-year-old war. The war has killed more than 200,000 Colombians and displaced 5.7 million.
“We will now choose between the past and the future, we will choose between fear and hope, between those who deny peace and those who are ready to look for it," Santos told supporters in Bogota.
So what is the fear that Santos is talking about?
The government and FARC leaders have reached agreements on three key issues on the peace agenda - land reform, the FARC’s political participation and the illegal drug trade - since talks started in Havana in October 2012.
Colombia has never come this far in peace negotiations with the FARC, and many believe the Havana talks, which follow three previous failed attempts to sign a peace deal, are the best chance Colombia has ever had to end 50 years of war.
Despite all of this, Santos has failed to whip up support for the peace talks and alleviate real fears among Colombians about what a possible peace deal would bring.
Colombians fear any peace accord signed would lead to impunity for war crimes committed by the FARC rebels. Santos denies the FARC will get off scot-free, but he has failed to sell this message among voters.
Many Colombians also fear the rebels would form a political party and be allowed to run for Congress under a peace deal. The idea that FARC leaders could be spared prison time and hold political office is anathema to many Colombians.
Over the decades, the use of terror tactics by the guerrillas - such as bombing civilian targets, seizing towns and holding hostages captive in jungle camps for up to 12 years - has alienated the majority of Colombians from the FARC’s socialist cause.
Many Colombians see the FARC as drug traffickers, and the group commands little support among Colombians, especially among those living in cities.
Many Colombians also blame the failure of the 1999-2002 peace talks on the FARC and accuse the rebels of using a demilitarised zone granted by the government to regroup and continue drug trafficking.
It’s all these fears and hatred toward the FARC that Zuluaga, who is backed by former president Alvaro Uribe, have successfully exploited and tapped into.
"We cannot allow the FARC to attempt to command the country from Havana," Zuluaga told his supporters on Sunday as celebratory confetti rained down.
SUSPEND PEACE TALKS?
Zuluaga accuses Santos of being too soft and pandering to the FARC, who he calls terrorists and the “world’s biggest drug cartel”.
Zuluaga has said that if he gets elected, he will give the rebels one week to lay down their weapons and suspend peace negotiations if they refuse.
“There needs to be a unilateral ceasefire because it is them (the FARC) who are attacking Colombians,” Zuluaga told reporters on Monday, adding that the FARC ceasefire has to be “permanent” and "verifiable”.
"FARC leaders who have committed atrocious crimes - crimes against humanity - who should spend 50 years in jail, I'm willing to reduce their sentences to six years."
Analysts say it’s highly unlikely the FARC leadership at the negotiating table in Havana will agree to these two conditions imposed by Zuluaga, which in turn casts real doubts over the peace process if he wins.
“Suspending the talks in Havana means ending the peace process. That needs to be made clear to Colombians,” Juan Fernando Cristo, head of Colombia’s Congress and a Santos supporter, said on Monday.
Zuluaga has also tapped into the widespread perception among Colombians that security has worsened under the Santos government.
Even though murder rates have declined in recent years in some of Colombia’s major cities, including Bogota, many Colombians feel less safe today than they did during the Uribe government (2002-2010) that launched a successful U.S-backed military offensive against the rebels.
"We will decide on June 15 if we want more of the same or change for a better Colombia, if we want a country that gets more dangerous every day or if we want to build a safe country like the one we had between 2002 and 2010," Zuluaga told supporters on Sunday.
WORLD CUP FACTOR
There’s also the so-called World Cup factor that shouldn’t be ruled out, analysts say.
The day before the second round of voting, Colombia plays Greece in a match that marks Colombia’s return to the World Cup after failing to qualify for the past 16 years.
A win by Colombia would bring a feel-good factor that could favour Santos’ chances, while a loss on the football pitch could turn even more voters away from the polling stations.
The first round of voting was marked by high abstention rates, with 60 percent of Colombia’s 33 million eligible voters deciding not to cast a ballot.
The World Cup aside, if Santos does get re-elected next month, it will be seen as an endorsement for the peace talks.
If Zuluaga wins, the peace process is likely to evaporate, and Colombia, as Santos has warned, will continue in a “war without end”.