Three guerrillas killed by Colombia's army.                                      Photographer: Felipe Caicedo/AFP/Getty Images
Three guerrillas killed by Colombia's army.                                      Photographer: Felipe Caicedo/AFP/Getty Images

Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday will ultimately become a referendum on the government’s peace negotiations with the Marxist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The peace talks, begun by President Juan Manuel Santos in September 2012, aren't popular. A recent poll found that only 39 percent of Colombians say that dialogue with the rebels is the best way to achieve peace. The rest say the guerrillas should be given a chance to surrender or be defeated militarily.

The talks are so unpopular that Santos’s approval rating has tumbled from 52 percent in February 2013 and now sits at 38 percent, according to pollster Ipsos, even though economic growth has surged, averaging 4.7 percent annually since he took office in 2010. Plus, inflation is low, government debt as a percentage of gross domestic product has declined, and foreign investment has risen steadily during his tenure. Yet the incumbent finds himself in a dead heat with rival Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, an equally business-friendly politician who has vowed to suspend the peace negotiations.

That so many Colombians would choose to continue a 50-year war against drug-financed rebels instead of hammering out a compromise says much about the type of democracy they want to preserve.

The lack of enthusiasm for peace talks is partly an issue of comfort. Colombians in urban areas -- 76 percent of the population -- have learned to live with a war that happens in faraway jungles and has little effect on their lives. These days the biggest sacrifice Colombian city dwellers make is tolerating bomb-sniffing dogs in shopping mall parking lots.

Signing peace deals and giving the FARC institutional legitimacy could roil the political landscape. The hard left could grow with former guerrilla fighters vying for spots in a political system that now is dominated by a few political clans and the sons of the elite.

Moreover, a postwar Colombia would face a host of demands, especially from the agriculture sector. Politicians have grown accustomed to dismissing concerns from various factions by insisting that almost any protests are inspired by FARC. Sociologist Daniel Pecaut recently said it best: “What Colombia fears most is populism, not the FARC.”

There’s a reason for that. After all, Colombians have seen up close how 15 years of a radical leftist government destroyed the economy and political system of neighboring Venezuela. Colombians are right to worry that the FARC could renege on its agreements, use the talks as a stalling tactic or to promote itself as a legitimate political front, as it has done before.

Such low expectations are understandable, but they’re misguided. Colombia’s former hardline president, Alvaro Uribe, achieved much by squeezing the FARC militarily. But bullets alone may not do away with a rebel group that has managed to survive for so long.

The worst thing about a long-running war is that it desensitizes those who are exposed to it. Colombia’s democracy will no doubt undergo change should the FARC ever disappear, in some ways for the worst, perhaps in the form of postwar violence or radical leftists vying for power. But the social and economic benefits to Colombia of achieving peace may well be worth the risk.

To contact the author of this article: Raul Gallegos atrgallegos5@bloomberg.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.