Colombia's FARC candidate out of presidential race due to ill health

((In March 8 item, corrects name of group to “Revolutionary Alternative Common Force” from “Revolutionary Armed Common Force” in paragraph 11.))

Ivan Marquez and Carlos Antonio Lozada of the political party of the FARC speak during a news conference in Bogota, Colombia March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s former FARC rebels will not field a candidate in the country’s May presidential election as its hopeful, Rodrigo Londono, battles heart problems, the group said on Thursday.

The group will, however, have candidates in Sunday’s congressional election, its first outing as an unarmed political party, after it demobilized under a 2016 peace deal with the government.

Known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, Londono had been the FARC’s bet to replace President Juan Manuel Santos when the latter leaves office in August, but heart surgery on Wednesday has put him out of the race.

The group said attacks by the right wing, including protests at their events, were a further reason for pulling out of the presidential election.

Londono canceled campaigning last month after his motorcade was pelted with tomatoes and eggs by angry protesters.

“The surgery which took place yesterday, combined with already discussed features of the electoral campaign, has led us to decline our presidential aspirations,” FARC senate candidate Ivan Marquez said, reading from a statement.

Marquez said the group was open to backing a presidential candidate from a different party if that person supports the peace deal.

Seventy-four FARC candidates for the lower and upper house of Congress will run in legislative elections on Sunday. The group is guaranteed 10 seats in the body through 2026 under the terms of the peace deal.

The Shaio clinic said in a statement Londono is under observation and had also been suffering a pulmonary sickness and an obstructed cerebral artery.

The former FARC commander was unlikely to have garnered many votes from Colombians, many of whom believe its leaders should be in prison, not running for office. Recent polls have shown him with a maximum of 1 percent support.

Voters, analysts and even Santos himself have scoffed at the group’s decision to keep its infamous Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia by naming its political party the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force.

Though the FARC had many youthful and perhaps less controversial fighters in their ranks, its congressional hopefuls are largely grizzled ex-commanders, shorn of the beards they wore in rebel camps and wearing loafers instead of rubber boots.

The choice to back candidates until now best known by Colombians for gun battles, kidnapping for ransom and setting land mines, is seen by many as a missed opportunity for the FARC to reinvent itself.

“It’s important that they’re now not at war, but really they won’t have much impact on elections,” analyst Juan Carlos Palou said. “And anyway they don’t have any attractive or innovative ideas.”

The group could possibly still win support from poor, rural communities which lack good roads, schools and basic services.

It is unclear whether remaining left-wing presidential candidates will want the FARC’s backing, though all are staunch supporters of the peace deal.

FARC leaders have expressed fear of a systematic campaign to assassinate their members, as happened with other leftist movements in the country. More than 50 party members and relatives have been killed since the accord was signed, the group says.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Helen Murphy; editing by Helen Murphy and Jonathan Oatis