- - Monday, October 3, 2016

Bogota, COLOMBIA — Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s hawkish former president and the leading voice against the landmark peace deal with the FARC guerrilla, emerged Monday as the most critical player in a political landscape turned upside down by voters’ stunning rejection of the pact in Sunday’s national referendum.

Mr. Uribe, who during his 2002-10 tenure cornered the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas militarily — a move that forced them to the negotiating table — urged a “national pact” but then swiftly declined an invitation to talks with a humbled President Juan Manuel Santos, who pledged to “listen” to detractors in the wake of the stinging defeat for a peace deal that was to be his political legacy.

The Obama administration said Monday it was “surprised” by the outcome and offered to help Bogota come up with a Plan B, and Mr. Santos reiterated his determination to salvage both the peace process and his presidency.

SEE ALSO: In shocker, Colombians reject peace treaty with FARC rebels

Those dual goals, analysts say, may prove a heavy lift amid doubts that Mr. Uribe’s Democratic Center is able — or willing — to eventually strike a new deal with the FARC, one designed to end the longest-running and last major military conflict in the Western Hemisphere.

“Within [his party,] there are radical sectors that believe that any negotiation with the guerrillas would be almost treason, high treason,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz Vasquez, a political scientist at Bogota’s prestigious Del Rosario University. “I don’t believe it would bother them to go on with the war.”

Democratic Center rivals may also soon jockey to top the ballot in the 2018 presidential election, especially since the star of Humberto de la Calle, the term-limited Mr. Santos‘ chief negotiator and possible successor, has faded in the wake of the referendum results.

In an ironic twist, the re-emergence of such hard-liners means the FARC now hold a major stake in the political survival of a government it once fought to destroy, and whose leader represents a rogue state that defied Bogota for 52 years.

Giving hope to Mr. Santos and the pro-treaty forces, FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre, Timochenko, on Monday phoned in from Havana to tell a nation radio network the country needed a “political pact.”

“We have to re-evaluate the polarization,” Mr. Londono said, urging a renewed commitment to “never again [use] weapons in war, never again slander and stigmatization.”

Colombian media, though, were openly wondering on Monday just how much “governability” Mr. Santos had left even after an expected Cabinet shuffle. For better or for worse, thus, the FARC will likely find no way around Mr. Uribe, their sworn enemy.

Based on past historical patterns, the difficulties nailing down a deal may turn out to be helpful in the long run, said Robin Kirk, co-chairwoman of Duke University’s Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

In Northern Ireland, for instance, Protestant Unionist firebrand Rev. Ian Paisley once said he would “never” extend his hand with the likes of IRA leader Martin McGuinness, Ms. Kirk noted. But less than 10 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the two jointly led the government in Belfast.

“Uribe is a positive angel next to Paisley,” she said, so down the road, one might “imagine Timochenko with Uribe in the Cabinet.”

But for that to happen, all sides must return to the table “in good faith,” Ms. Kirk noted.

“[Uribe backers] can’t just say ‘no, no, no.’ History will roll over them if they do,”’ she said. But “the FARC also has to realize that their negotiating room is dramatically narrow.”

Time, meanwhile, will be critical. Some 7,000 guerrilla fighters — who had been set to hand over their guns and begin to integrate into civil society — now find themselves in legal limbo in their so-called “concentration zones.” In a controversial provision of the 297-page agreement, rebels who confess their crimes to special peace tribunals were to be spared prison sentences and instead perform development work in areas hard-hit by the conflict.

Mr. Santos has underlined he would maintain a cease-fire, while Mr. Londono on Monday went so far as to insist the peace accord retained “an undeniable and irrevocable legal effect.” Still, Mr. Ruiz Vasquez said, the situation “cannot be prolonged for much time.”

“It’s a very fragile truce,” he said. “The guerrillas have not given up their arms.”

The White House insisted Monday that the Colombian vote validated Mr. Obama’s contention that democracy is often “messy.”

“The margin here was quite narrow,” press secretary Josh Earnest said, “and I think it’s an indication that there is still some work to do to meet the needs and expectations of the Colombian people.”

Staff writer Dave Boyer contributed to this story from Washington.

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