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With Colombians set to vote on peace deal, a former president campaigns to kill it

A man advocating against the FARC peace referendum, left, stands with "yes" vote supporters in front of Congress on Sept. 28, 2016, in Bogota, Colombia.

A man advocating against the FARC peace referendum, left, stands with “yes” vote supporters in front of Congress on Sept. 28, 2016, in Bogota, Colombia.

(Mario Tama / Getty Images)

When they go to the polls Sunday, Colombian voters are expected to endorse the landmark peace agreement signed this week by the government and the country’s most important rebel group.

If that happens, it will be despite the formidable efforts of former President Alvaro Uribe.

He has waged an aggressive campaign to kill the deal, rallying opponents ranging from victims rights groups to wealthy ranchers. Their main complaint is that the deal’s “transitional justice” treats the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the guerrilla group known as FARC — too leniently for horrific crimes committed over decades of war.

Those who confess to murders, kidnappings, terror attacks and other atrocities would face maximum sentences of eight years of “restricted liberty,” a form of house arrest, in the 23 “relocation zones,” the rural reserves where rebels will move once they give up their weapons.

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“Triumphant terrorism has achieved its entire agenda,” 64-year-old Uribe told hundreds of supporters Monday at a rally outside the convention hall in Cartagena, where President Juan Manuel Santos and rebel leaders signed the peace deal.

Technically, the accord took effect immediately after it was signed. The plebiscite Sunday is considered an advisory vote without legal teeth.

But the political fallout from a popular rejection of the deal likely would kill the agreement. Santos has said he needs public backing before launching the multibillion-dollar process of integrating rebels into society by giving them land and job training.

If voters reject the deal, he has said, he will resume a 52-year-old civil war that has cost 220,00 lives and displaced an estimated 7 million people.

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Uribe’s motivation is at least in part personal. His father, a rancher from Medellín, was killed by rebels during a kidnapping attempt in 1983, not long after Uribe briefly served as mayor there.

A lawyer by training admired for his oratorical abilities, Uribe took an aggressive stance against the rebels that brought him national attention and a senate seat in 1984. He won election as governor of his native Antioquia state in 1995.

His victory in the 2002 presidential election came in the wake of failed peace talks initiated three years earlier by his predecessor. The armed forces had suffered a string of defeats and the FARC seemed on the verge of seizing power. At Uribe’s inauguration, rebels encircled the capital of Bogota and shelled the ceremony.

As president, he gained a fervent following for turning the tide militarily against the rebels and restoring a measure of security to cities and highways. Billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance and training also helped.

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By the time Uribe left office in 2010, rebel forces were in retreat.

The peace agreement offers the same deal to government soldiers as it does to rebels: Admit to extrajudicial killings or other war crimes and face house arrest. Some human rights groups say the deal is too lenient toward the military, whose crimes include killing thousands of civilians and reporting that they were rebels to collect bonuses and earn promotions.

But in Uribe’s view, the armed forces should be judged less harshly than demobilized rebel “terrorist bandits” and subjected to a separate judicial process.

“He is playing to the military’s internal esprit de corps and to his image as a strong man,” said Bruce Bagley, a professor of international relations at the University of Miami and a Colombia expert. “It’s won him a lot of support.”

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Reelected to the Senate in 2014, Uribe currently leads the Democratic Center party faction there and remains a popular political figure.

On social media and at rallies across the country, Uribe continues to strike a responsive chord among many Colombians, many of whom have been touched by rebel atrocities, including assassinations, kidnappings and extortion.

On Wednesday, Uribe tweeted: “I am voting ‘No’ because it is the only opportunity we have to correct the agreements.”

Political analysts say that it is unlikely that a popular rejection of the accord would lead to a renegotiation and that a return to war is the more probable outcome.

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But they say a “no” vote would strengthen Uribe’s congressional faction in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election. Uribe himself is prohibited from seeking a third term.

Despite his popularity, his campaign against the peace deal is unlikely to succeed.

Polls show supporters of the peace accord ahead and gaining ground, suggesting that a majority of Colombians are willing to forgive, if not forget, in the interest of putting an interminable war behind them. Santos has promised a “peace dividend” of economic growth.

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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