BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia's demobilized guerilla movement nominated Rodrigo Londono on Wednesday to run for president in the South American nation's election next year, keeping the former top commander at the helm of the rebels' nascent political party.
Londono, better known by his alias Timochenko, became the leader of the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2011 and has been a key figure in the peace process to end Latin America's longest-running conflict.
Londono and President Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace accord last year in which rebels agreed to lay down their arms and confess their war crimes in exchange for state pledges to improve conditions in Colombia's poor rural communities and facilitate the rebel movement's conversion into a political party.
"The common people and those who dream of a new country will have their representation," said Ivan Marquez, a former rebel leader who served as chief negotiator during talks with the government.
The selection of Londono falls in line with previous steps the ex-combatants have taken in recent months to ensure the group's historical leaders remain at the forefront of their political agenda. The former rebels have changed their official name but preserved the Spanish acronym by which they are known, the FARC. The party is led by a political council that consists almost entirely of leaders who have spent decades with the organization.
Polls within Colombia indicate the FARC remains deeply unpopular, though one recent Gallup survey said the ex-combatants have a higher approval rating than the nation's traditional political parties. Recent corruption scandals and division over the peace process have tarnished many Colombians' opinion of their nation's political leaders. Still, Londono and the other former rebels vying for political office are certain to face an uphill battle.
FARC leaders are hoping to mobilize long-marginalized Colombians living in one of the world's most unequal nations. The peace accord guarantees the ex-combatants 10 seats in Congress, and candidates for those posts were also announced Wednesday. They have settled on a political platform that is scarce on details, but will prioritize eliminating corruption, promoting social and economic equality and eradicating poverty.
Imelda Daza Cotes, who the FARC is nominating for vice president, said the party's idea is not to change the nation's economic model but to improve it.
"We want a model that is more inclusive," she said. "A model that is more humane."
The FARC was formed in the early 1960s by guerrillas affiliated with Colombia's Communist Party. At least 250,000 people were killed, another 60,000 left missing, and millions displaced in more than five decades of conflict between rebels, government forces and right-wing paramilitaries.
The first year of the peace accord's implementation has been marked both by key milestones, like the rebels' disarmament, and considerable setbacks. Dozens of social leaders have been killed, and new illegal groups have moved into remote parts of Colombia formerly controlled by the FARC. The rebels have also complained about dire conditions in demobilization camps that have made transition to civilian life difficult.
The launch of the FARC's political party has been met with resistance from leaders like former President Alvaro Uribe who warn it would turn the nation into another Venezuela, the neighboring Andean nation whose socialist government has brought the country to economic calamity.
Uribe blasted the FARC candidates Wednesday as "delinquents" guilty of crimes against humanity.
"We will confront them," he pledged.
Many Colombians want rebels banned from politics until they go before a special peace tribunal. Former rebels are being permitted to run for office before they are tried, but if the court orders them detained, that sentence could prevent them from continuing to participate in politics.
"Political participation is guaranteed in the accords," Rodrigo Rivera, Colombia's peace commissioner said. "But it's not unconditional."
Most rebels will be spared of any jail time under the agreement's terms.
Londono was hospitalized in July following a stroke and has largely kept a low profile since the peace accord's signing.
Adam Isacson of the Washington Office of Latin America think tank said the former rebel commander is likely the FARC's best candidate for president. He is considered less polarizing than other FARC leaders and many associate him positively with the group's decision to pursue peace.
"I guess the old guard feels this is there time," he said. "It's now or never if they're going to do this."