(Corrects paragraph 2 to show "no" vote marginally ahead)
By Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA Oct 2 Colombia's referendum over a peace
accord with Marxist rebels went down to the wire on Sunday,
jeopardising a deal that would end 52 years of war and allow
FARC fighters to re-enter society and form a political party.
With results in from 90.66 percent of voting stations, the
"no" vote was marginally ahead at 50.10 percent, versus 49.89
percent for "yes," according to Colombia's election authority.
That confounded opinion polls that had predicted a
comfortable victory for the "yes" camp promoted by President
Juan Manuel Santos. He has said his government will go back to
war if the deal is rejected.
The vote asked for a simple "yes" or "no" on whether
Colombians support the accord signed last Monday by Santos, who
has staked his legacy on peace, and the rebel commander known as
"We must end a 52-year war and open the way to peace, a
peace that will take us to a better future ... peace is the way
to ensure our children and grandchildren have a better country,"
Santos said after voting.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC,
whose numbers were halved to about 7,000 in recent years because
of a U.S.-backed military offensive, has agreed to turn in
weapons and fight for power at the ballot box instead of with
After four years of negotiations in Havana, the final
agreement was applauded around the world. Recent opinion polls
show about two-thirds of voters are likely to ratify it.
Influential former President Alvaro Uribe led the "no" camp,
arguing that rebels should pay for crimes in jail and never be
given congressional seats. But most Colombians, including some
who see the accord as too soft on the FARC, seem convinced an
imperfect peace is better than more war.
"This country needs a change and it has to be today," Fabiel
Cruz, 31, an administrator, said after voting yes. "It's the
only chance we have. If it's not today it will be never."
Under the accord, the FARC, which began as a peasant revolt
in 1964, can compete in the 2018 presidential and legislative
elections and will have 10 unelected congressional seats
guaranteed through 2026.
It will give up its role in the lucrative illegal drug trade
and take part in reforming rural Colombia, most of which is poor
Details of the FARC's political platform have not yet been
revealed but its Marxist rhetoric goes very much against the
beliefs of the largely conservative Colombian population, and
most, including Santos, think it will have difficulty finding a
Colombia's Senate has 102 members and the House of
Representatives has 166, so the FARC's 10 seats are not enough
to sway legislation. But some Colombians are still outraged.
"I voted no. I don't want to teach my children that
everything can be forgiven," said Alejandro Jaramillo, 35,
angered that the rebels will not serve jail time.
"The accord gives a lot of concessions to the guerrillas.
They changed their strategy from arms to politics but the goal
is still socialism," said Javier Milanes, 34, a restaurant owner
who also voted no.
For decades, the FARC bankrolled the longest-running
conflict in the Americas through the illegal drug trade,
kidnapping and extortion, spreading a sense of terror that left
few Colombians unaffected. The conflict took more than 220,000
lives and displaced millions of people.
Colombians are tired of the bloodshed, which at its worst
saw the FARC positioned close to the capital and the state on
the verge of collapse. Battles between the guerrillas,
paramilitaries, drug gangs and the army raged in the countryside
and there were atrocities committed on all sides.
A major concern for Colombians is that the FARC amassed a
fortune from the cocaine trade. If the group does not hand over
all its assets to victim reparations as promised, it could have
a political war chest that arguably puts it at an advantage over
other political movements.
If the peace accord is approved on Sunday, Santos likely
will turn his focus toward a much-needed tax reform and other
measures to compensate for a drop in oil income, as well as
possible talks with the smaller ELN rebel group.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb, Additional
reporting by Carlos Vargas and Monica Garcia; Editing by Bill
Trott and Peter Cooney)