Colombia, healing the rift

The peace process in Colombia has just suffered a huge blow. We should be thinking, with honesty and courage, how to start healing the rifts that the referendum has opened. Español Português

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
4 October 2016

"Yes" supporters. Fernando Vergara AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

The peace process in Colombia has just suffered a huge blow. The result, which favoured the rejection of the peace agreement, will be very painful for many, even though it is not the end of the road. The negotiations between the government and the guerrillas have gone too far now for a return to arms.

But, ultimately, it was not a good idea to hold a referendum for the approval of a 297-page agreement, negotiated over many years and with considerable effort on the part of multiple actors – including many from the international community – to settle a war that had become a chronic tumor in the belly of Colombia.

From both those who saw the virtues of the agreement, as well as those who highlighted its risks and shortcomings, there were voices from authoritative figures warning that holding a referendum would be a historical mistake. Ultimately, as a head-or-tails vote, the question put forward to people involved far too many external factors, such as deceptive oversimplifications; the misrepresentation of information; the clashing of emotions; rural-urban and inland-peripheral divisions, and the rural population directly affected by the conflict vs. urban populations far away from it ... the list is long. And in the end, heavy rain fell, tand he village roads became blocked with mud. 

But with only 37% of the census voting in the referendum and the vote divided in two halves, we now find ourselves with an historic decision having been made with less than one in every five Colombians (just over 18%) supporting it – a decision that contains obvious setbacks and casts serious uncertainty for the near-future. Moreover, incomprehensibly, there were 257,000 void ballots – a very high number, considering that voting required a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

In any case, no one doubts the respectability of the people who – in good faith – did not trust an agreement negotiated by the elites, who were suspicious of the triumphalist arrogance of some of the actors involved, or thought that they were asked to pay too heavy a price for victory over the FARC - namely, the political participation of the guerrilla and the complexities of an advanced transitional justice. Specialists in peace agreements have been negotiating a process of great technical quality, with many innovations and valuable contributions to peace building, including, for the very first time, the participation of the victims, and the views of women throughout the process. This effort, which has taken years, has never-the-less been insufficient. The eventual impact of the referendum was a negative one, and so we have to start imagining again.

The problems of submitting complex ideas to a referendum 

Plebiscite democracy, its fervent advocates argue, is actually real democracy because it gives the people the power to make decisions directly. But the truth is that this is a political instrument used for purposes that go beyond what is strictly to be decided This opens the way for the eliciting of responses that incorporate factors not directly relevant to the question. Referenda present a black-and-white discussion which inevitably polarizes and aggravates society. Moreover, it excludes the moderates, those who honestly declare that they do not want to comment on something they do not understand and those who think that the matter is not of their concern - or rather that it is a matter for professional politicians to solve, since their function is precisely to settle the complex issues related to the common good.

Plebiscite democracy, its fervent advocates argue, is actually real democracy because it gives the people the power to make decisions directly.

Most of the time, referenda become a campaign ‘for or against’ the president who calls it - and the president’s rivals use referenda as an opportunity to attack them with arguments that cannot always be taken seriously. The argument that a ‘yes’ vote meant handing over power to the FARC and opening the door to a Venezuela-like Bolivarian-Chavista regime was used unscrupulously by the former President, now Senator, Álvaro Uribe and his followers. Jumping on the opportunity offered by a foreign correspondent who called football player James Rodríguez a coward if he did not side with the agreement, Uribe even had another footballer in the Colombian national team intervene in the campaign, who asked for Jesus Christ’s divine intervention in favour for the ‘no’ vote. It may seem an eccentricity, but the degree of simplification and irrationality a referendum entails undermines democracy - which is an art of integrating the nuances, the gray areas and the differences when protecting the common good. And most of all, it should be over and above the short-term manipulation of emotions.

Political instrumentalization 

Recently we have been seeing the spurious use of ‘direct democracy’ for political purposes. On the very same day, Sunday 2nd October, Hungary held its own referendum, a consultation which asked citizens whether they would support a ‘refugee quota’ imposed by the European Union – even if it were contradictory to their constitution. This was a totally biased, with the answer already contained within the leading question.

But the truth is that this is a political instrument used for purposes that go beyond what is strictly to be decided. 

As to be expected, 98% were in favor of the proposed quota – a result reminiscent of the old days of Communism - but with an insufficient voter turnout of 40%. It is a triumph for illiberal democracy, even if an irony lies in the fact that it was the same Hungarian Prime Minister who changes the minimum required percentage of participation from 25% to 50%, as an attempted safeguard against potential opposition attacks on his power. As a result, Prime Minister Orban could not, in accordance with the law, consider the result as a victory. But this aside, it was a matter of using such a politically sensitive issue as the refugee crisis in Europe, for populism. The referendum ended up being the perfect tool to stir up racism and resentment, and to debilitate a weak opposition that, of course, refused to be part of this undemocratic game.

Clearly, the Hungarian case is an extreme one – even if it is hard to believe that a Europe of the EU these extremes exist – but the UK’s recent experience was no better an example. The winners of the ‘leave’ campaign have avoided the cost of the lies that they told the public throughout their campaign. Is this how the great bastion of liberal democracy works?

To reduce the complexity of reality to such simple ideas, as referenda often do, is cheating - and more sensitivity should be exercised. This is particularly the case at a time when we are seeing the cost of hyper-globalisation, through re-nationalisation and the revival of identity politics against values of citizenship, as a general ‘step backwards’.

Defensive nationalism is the new phantom that haunts Europe – and indeed the world. The simplistic but effective idea of the Brexit campaign, to “take back control”, shares common ground with the slogan of the US Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, when he says, “Let’s make America great again!” And the threat of a Trump victory, in any case, dwarfs the terrible outcome of the Colombian referendum.

To reduce the complexity of reality to such simple ideas, as referenda often do, is cheating - and more sensitivity should be exercised.


Fortunately, as long as the memory of the escalating violence that followed previous failed peace processes lives in the memory of Colombians, there lies a strong deterrent to return to arms.

Amongst the pain of those who lost their loved ones and the euphoria of those who won, a period of uncertainty has opened. But with haste, the two sides should come to some agreement and convince the FARC that a final push is still required if they want the agreement to survive the monumental setback of the referendum result – and eventually find the support of the Colombian majority.

We are now in a situation where – peace being irreversible – we ask whether the next agreement that is come to should be put to a referendum again, as the government seeks the desired popular support of the people, a support that this time it was unable to attain.

On paper, the referendum should only be called once a new agreement is found, one that the government, the opposition and the FARC will agree too. But then, what purpose does a referendum have if the question has already been answered? ‘To ratify it’, say its advocates, ‘to ensure stability’, or ‘to give it legitimacy’. 

Is it possible, therefore, that the dynamics of an intrinsically dividing and polarising question, one with a binary response, will derail the entire reconstruction effort? Especially when we can expect the resulting process to be as long and complex as the last? It is clear that referendums do not provide the appropriate, democratic means to settle such momentous decisions in society, but rather are a tool to open social rifts. And the very virtue of democracy, as a system, is to close them.

It is true that to oppose the idea of the referendum, as a method of making complex, transcendental decisions, would be considered as undemocratic by many. But in my opinion, it is a political tool that weakens, rather than strengthens, the quality of the democratic contract a state holds with its citizens. It opens rifts, rather than closes them – and this is the lesson that was learnt from Sunday’s referendum.

We will have to think, with honesty and courage, how to start closing this social rift that has been opened by the referendum. And whether it is really worth consulting the people again.

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