By Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Waving banners and chanting his name, thousands of supporters of Colombia's leftist Bogota mayor converged on the capital's central plaza on Tuesday to express outrage at his ouster and 15-year ban from holding political office.
Protesters filled Plaza Bolivar in front of the presidential palace and mayor's office in a sign of solidarity with Gustavo Petro, the former guerrilla politician removed on Monday from Colombia's second-most powerful post.
In a harsh blow to the political left, the inspector general ruled that Petro, once a member of the now-defunct M-19 rebel movement, badly handled changes to garbage collection in the city of 8 million people, creating a health hazard as rubbish piled up on the streets last year.
Petro, 53, claims his ouster is a politically motivated coup by the right-wing Inspector General Alejandro Ordonez and a sign that Marxist FARC rebels would not easily be incorporated into the political system if current peace talks are successful.
"The protagonist has ceased being the mayor, and is now the people," said Petro from a city hall balcony overlooking the plaza where youths waved M-19 flags. "That's how a democratic struggle should be."
He is expected to remain in office until all appeals are exhausted.
Petro's 2011 election as Bogota mayor was seen as proof that politics was the way forward for rebel movements. The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is working through a five-point agenda with the government to bring an end to 50 years of conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people.
FARC leaders on Tuesday said the decision to oust Petro could impact the ongoing peace process in Cuba even after agreement was reached last month on the group's inclusion into the political system.
"The decision by the ultra-conservative inspector general is another serious blow to the peace process in Havana, that affects confidence and credibility," the rebel group said in a statement.
While Petro's popularity has slumped over the past year as many Bogotanos considered him arrogant and inefficient, the 15-year ban on holding office was seen as particularly harsh given he has been one of the nation's most visible politicians. Others question how an elected official can be ousted from office by another official.
"How is it possible that the popular vote has not been respected in Bogota?" Petro asked the crowd.
WAVE OF VIOLENCE
In a fiery speech late on Monday, Petro warned the left that the "fascists" would never allow them to rule and reminded supporters that past leaders who sought high office had been assassinated.
The protest is being held a few blocks from where leftist presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was gunned down in 1948 as it became clear he would win the presidential election and fight for the rights of the poor.
His death unleashed a wave of violence and paved the way for the founding of the FARC in 1964 and other insurgent groups years later.
Petro also evoked the memory of Carlos Pizarro, assassinated as he ran for president in 1990 after the M-19 demobilized.
"Protesting Petro's removal is vital," said philosophy graduate Paola Galindo, 23, as she gathered in the plaza on Tuesday. "It's an attack against the peace process and shows there is no guarantee of political representation for the opposition or social movements."
It was not clear how long Petro's appeal would take or when new elections could be held.
Petro, an economist and former congressman, ran a city with an annual budget of about $7 billion. Ordonez, the inspector general, said he had damaged free competition by giving a state company - with no experience in waste collection - the contract to clear garbage.
Jailed for his rebel activities in the 1980s after joining M-19 as a university student, Petro was among the most vocal legislators in denouncing corruption and congressional ties to right-wing paramilitaries.
He rallied heavily against former President Alvaro Uribe.
The M-19 rebel group was suspected of being paid by late drug lord Pablo Escobar to attack the Supreme Court in 1985 and destroy evidence that may have led to his extradition. As many as 95 people were killed in that attack, including 11 justices.
While the M-19 disarmed at the end of the 1980s, the drug-funded FARC remains active throughout the country.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)