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Colombia vote may impact rebel peace talks

BOGOTA, Colombia--Colombians went to the polls on Sunday to elect new legislators, in a vote seen as a referendum on peace talks with leftist guerrillas and a bellwether for May's presidential election.

The voting, which got under way at 1300 GMT, comes with the government locked in talks with Marxist rebels which have dominated political life in Colombia since the negotiations opened in late 2012.

Now Colombians will weigh on those talks spearheaded by negotiators representing President Jose Manuel Santos, who is expected to announce his bid for re-election this week.

Santos's government has been holding talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America's oldest insurgency, which has been at war with the Colombian state for 50 years.

His three-party coalition government is expected to retain control of both chambers of Congress — a tacit endorsement of the peace talks, although some war-weary Colombians have reservations.

“It is highly likely that the president will retain a strong majority,” said Sandra Borda, professor of political science at the University of the Andes in Bogota.

“Although many Colombians have their doubts about the process, they will not go so far as to reject it. They do not want it to end,” she said.

One big question will be how Santos' predecessor Alvaro Uribe does in his quest for a Senate seat.

'Uribe's dissonant voice'

Uribe, a conservative, is still popular for his no-holds-barred fight against the FARC while in power from 2002 to 2010.

Campaigning on the slogan “No to impunity,” he is Colombia's first ex-president to seek a seat in the Senate, from which he aims to challenge the course of the talks.

But his new party, the Democratic Center, is projected to win only about 14 percent of the votes, which would give it just 19 of the 102 senate seats.

Uribe accuses Santos, his former defense minister, of treason by turning the FARC into “political players” with a high-profile stage in Havana where the talks are being held.

“Uribe's list is not going to win a majority, but to some extent it will allow him to shape the national agenda,” said Luis Guillermo Patino, a political scientist at Medellin's Pontifical Bolivarian University.

“It will be very difficult to prevent a ratification of peace accords, but if those accords are put to a referendum a dissonant voice like that of Uribe can resonate powerfully,” Patino said.

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