(Photo: Democratic Center)

Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the presidential frontrunner following Colombia’s first round of elections, said Monday that he would suspend ongoing peace talks with the FARC rebel group, the country’s largest. 

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The peace talks, which began in November 2012, were initiated by current President Juan Manel Santos, Zuluaga’s rival in the runoff election scheduled for June 15. The peace talks are shaping up to be the primary issue in the two-week buildup to second round elections.

In a press conference following a tense but peaceful electoral contest, Zuluaga reiterated an earlier promise to suspend the talks, stressing he would do so on his first day in office.

With his newly strengthened position as leader of the election race, the opposition candidate clearly framed himself in opposition to Santos, who has been campaigning on a “vote for peace” platform.

The hard-line presidential hopeful said he would demand the FARC to cease “all criminal activity against Colombians” before considering a resumption of talks with the rebels, who have been fighting the state since 1964.

The bilateral ceasefire proposal submitted repeatedly by the FARC but rejected by the Santos government is also not negotiable, said Zuluaga.

“In no way can we talk about a bilateral ceasefire. There must be a unilateral ceasefire because it is they who are attacking Colombians,” the candidate added.

Zuluaga and his political patron, former President Alvaro Uribe — now a senator-elect and head of Zuluaga’s right-wing Democratic Center (Centro Democratico) party — have been campaigning against the peace talks since their formal inception in late 2012.

MORE: Oscar Ivan Zuluaga to represent Uribe in Colombia’s 2014 elections

The Democratic Center’s stance that the talks should be renegotiated was strengthened by a clear victory in Sunday’s first round of presidential elections.

Amid the lowest turnout in recent history — 40% — Zuluaga took 29% of the vote, beating Santos by 4.5 percentage points.

MORE: 1st round election results

“I am willing to look for a lasting peace, but there must be conditions. If the FARC wants a negotiated peace there has to be an end to all criminal activity against Colombians.”

The “Uribista” candidate said he was not opposed to peace, but opposed to the conditions under which the talks are being held. The FARC have asked that both sides cease hostilities during negotiations, but as no ceasefire has been put in place, rebel attacks have continued.

“I am a friend of peace,” said Zuluaga. “I am willing to look for a lasting peace, but there must be conditions. If the FARC wants a negotiated peace there has to be an end to all criminal activity against Colombians.”

One such condition, said Zuluaga, is that the FARC leadership must agree to serve at least six years in prison, while lower ranked guerrillas with no pending investigations over human rights violations will be allowed amnesty.

“Those who have committed atrocities or crimes against humanity will have to pay with prison sentences, be it reduced sentences,” said the presidential hopeful.

The FARC — currently negotiating the fourth of six points of an eventual peace deal with the Santos administration — have so far refused to commit to prison sentences and want other participants in the conflict to be held similarly accountable for human rights crimes too.

The Colombian Army, for example, is also responsible of numerous documented incidents of massive human rights violations. Most prominent among these are the more than 5,000 civilians murdered during the early 2000s and dressed in rebel uniforms. The vast majority of these extrajudicial killings, euphemistically dubbed “false positives,” were committed while Uribe, Zuluaga’s political patron, was president between 2002 and 2010, and were compensated with bonuses and paid vacations.

MORE: False positives

Santos, meanwhile, has put the continuation of peace talks and his self-proclaimed ability to reach an agreement with the guerrillas at the center of his campaign.

Polls show that the general population is in favor of peace talks but skeptical of their ultimate success, a dynamic perhaps reflected in the low turnout and poor Santos performance from last Sunday’s contest.

Colombian voters will take to the polls for the second round on June 15 in one of the most hotly contested elections in the past decades.

In spite of the agitated campaigning by both Santos and Zuluaga, and mutual accusations of engaging in criminal behavior, voter turnout on Sunday was the lowest since 1994 when only 34% of Colombians turned up in an equally agitated race between now-former Presidents Ernesto Samper and Andres Pastrana.

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