Colombia and the plebiscite: the peace that wasn’t

Peace in Colombia is now entering an unpredictable labyrinth. Español

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
6 October 2016

In Bogota, Colombia, thousands attend 'March for Peace' following referendum's 'NO' result. Wednesday, 5 October, 2016.

After 52 years, four months and five days of an armed conflict that has left more than 8 million victims, Colombians rejected in a plebiscite (50.2% vs. 49.7%) the commitment to peace agreed by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

How are we to understand such a paradoxical and unexpected result? I will try to outline some hypotheses. First, the Colombian political system is currently experiencing serious representation problems, as shown in the recurring low levels of participation. Just 37.4% of the 34.899.945 Colombians eligible to vote went to the polls on October, 2nd - only 13.066.047 people did vote. There were fewer voters than in the first rounds of the presidential elections in 2010 (14.781.020) and in 2014 (13.209.561). And the percentage of those not voting at the referendum (63.6%) was the second highest since the first round of the presidential elections (66.3%) of 1994. It is important to acknowledge that only a segment of the Establishment—a relatively more modern one—has been opened to dialogue and negotiation with a severely weakened but not completely defeated insurgency. The most traditional and conservative sector of the Establishment expected and favored the rendition of the FARC.

Second, the electorate faced enormous difficulties to know and understand in any depth the content of what was being voted. The document backing the signing of the peace between the Colombian government and the M-19 guerrillas in March 1990 was four pages long. The text signed with the FARC has 297 pages. The former was an agreement. The latter is a treaty. Comparative literature on plebiscitary campaigns indicates that the key to obtain a favourable vote of the population is to have sufficient time to educate the voters, to communicate in a coherent way, to encourage citizen involvement and to reach the undecided. None of this happened this time, despite the fact that it was essential - considering the complexity and the ambition of the text - that the vast majority of Colombians comprehend and assimilate why they should vote yes.

Third, the deployment of relatively scarce resources, the campaign style and the strong rhetorical arguments of the supporters of the “no” vote should be acknowledged. The government-FARC commitment is precise and comprehensive, but its opponents managed to oversimplify and shrink it. The key strategy of the “no” promoters was to avoid explaining the agreement and to stress the question of indignation. The idea was not to debate rational pros and cons arguments but the accentuate passionate sentiments such as resentment against the FARC and anger against the government. 

On agricultural matters, for example, the agreement proposes the drawing up of a rural land census (the last dates back to 1954), the creation of a three-million hectares land fund to be allocated to peasants for free, the establishment of a massive program to regularize property (totaling seven million hectares) aimed at small and medium producers, and the reduction of rural poverty by 50% in the next 10 years. On political matters, the agreement states that the FARC is to abandon its project of seizing power by the force of arms and to become a political movement, once full disarmament is completed. One of the incentives to access legality is the granting of a minimum of five senators and five representatives (MPs) to the FARC, from 2028 till 2026, out of a Congress composed of 102 senators and 166 representatives. On drug trafficking, the FARC commits itself to putting an end to “any relationship which may have been forged with this phenomenon during the rebellion”. And on justice, the agreement includes a truth commission, a unit to identify missing persons, and a special jurisdiction for peace and repair within the framework of a transitional legal system, fully backed by the International Criminal Court.

The opponents of the agreement focused their attacks on their allegation that the FARC would remain linked to the drug business and would also enjoy total impunity. In addition references were made with respect to the political benefits for the guerrillas and the defense of private property. Neither one nor the other follows from what was signed. Opponents, however, especially former President Álvaro Uribe, used a direct and simple language that the advocates of the “yes” vote could not counteract with the same synthetic precision. Instead of appearing as defending arguments that perpetuate polarization and confrontation, opponents managed to convey the idea that their purpose was to improve what had been signed and to ensure peace for the future. In the end, a well-mobilized minority was able to defeat the dreams of peace of another minority while a large majority remained indifferent: the total “no” vote represented only 18.4% of the eligible voters.

Fourth, errors made by President Santos and his low popularity should also be considered. Santos took the risky option of submitting the agreement to a plebiscite, although recent comparative experience was not very encouraging. Guatemala reached a peace agreement in 1996, but the referendum held in 1999, which could have opened the way to major constitutional reforms, was rejected by 91.8% of the voters, and voter turnout was just 18.6%. Also in 1999, a hasty referendum in East Timor, which was voted positively, prompted a brutal reaction from the Indonesian government, resulting in thousands of casualties and refugees. In 2004, the referendum for the reunification of Cyprus was rejected by 75.8% of the Greek Cypriots, with 89.1% voter turnout. Santos had no political, domestic or international obligation to call a plebiscite, but he did because of the legal commitment he decided to sponsor prior to the end of the negotiations. When the time came to vote Colombians severely question his public policies on fighting corruption, security, employment and health. The conjunction between a president with low approval ratings and the persistent rejection of the FARC by a substantial part of the population contributed to weakening support for the plebiscite. It is worth recognizing that plebiscites are both “issue” oriented and “contextually” implemented. The issue at stake is crucial but the context is many times more fundamental. A combination of a very intricate peace agreement and a negative conjuncture for the political leadership is a recipe for disaster.

In short, peace in Colombia is now entering an unpredictable labyrinth. Perhaps this is the right time for international commitment, which showed itself so forcefully in the initial phase of the peace talks and the signing of the agreement in Cartagena, to be renewed decisively. Maybe that only a mixture of active mass mobilization from bellow and strong external support from outside can revitalize the peace process.

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