By Sandra Botero
Versión en español aquí
Last Sunday, October 2, Colombians went to the polls to vote in favor of (Yes) or in disapproval of (No) the peace accords negotiated in Havana, Cuba, after four years of talks between the Colombian government and the guerrilla FARC-EP. The majority of international news headlines reporting on the results of the plebiscite were variations on a similar theme: Colombians rejected peace. Although it’s true that the No option won, an analysis of what happened on October 2 must go beyond the word rejection.
Colombians did not reject peace: instead, the results of the referendum brought to the fore the chasm that divides the country and its heightened levels of polarization. The results do not entail the automatic death of the accords: the electoral triumph of the No does not invalidate them. There are institutional options to continue with the peace process, although there is also a lot of uncertainty, and President Juan Manuel Santos is in a very difficult position. Holding a plebiscite was a high-cost, high-reward strategy. The tight victory of the No campaign over the Yes (by an extremely narrow 0.43% margin and a 60% abstention rate) does not reflect a rejection of peace. To be more precise, the victory of the No reflects six sides of a very complex reality:
(1) The country’s polarization in the face of accords that are by definition controversial.
President Santos insisted on holding a referendum on the accords in an effort to legitimize the agreement. If the final accords were approved via referendum, they would enter the implementation stage strengthened, as would the president’s mandate. From the beginning, this was a very risky strategy as peace accords are, by nature, controversial. Political negotiations to facilitate disarmament, in Colombia as well as in many other cases, usually include dispositions for transitional justice and mechanisms for the political participation of former combatants. Understandably, these mechanisms are usually not popular among the electorate: few want to see illegal armed actors in Congress or receiving sentence reductions. It is hard to come to terms with these concessions, although they are the result of complex negotiations.
In the Colombian case, for example, the legal framework proposed by the Havana accords (a dedicated jurisdiction for peace, with jail time for crimes against humanity as well as alternative reparation measures) was harshly criticized. The No team (incorrectly) characterized this legal framework as being equal to impunity. The impunity accusation was at the crux of their argument against the accords and it generated a lot of discomfort among Colombians.
Beyond the biased campaign, these are delicate issues. Peace accords are contentious, and neither Colombians nor foreigners should be surprised that there is opposition to them. The arguments put forth by both sides need to be taken seriously.
(2) The profound division between rural Colombia, which suffers the direct consequences of the war and mostly voted Yes, and urban Colombia, which voted No.
The map of the electoral results clearly paints two sides: On one side is the country’s urban interior, where the majority of inhabitants voted No (orange in the map). On the other side are the rural areas of the country where the Yes vote was predominant (green in the map). This division coincides, in a nearly macabre manner, with the division between the areas of the country that directly experience less and more of the conflict. The No vote was the majority in urban areas that are less hard-hit by conflict-related violence, with the exception of the capital Bogotá, Cali, and mid-sized cities in the Caribbean coast, were the Yes won. With its vote, the urban country decided for the rural country. Sadly, it is rural Colombia that usually takes the hits.
(3) The importance of former president Álvaro Uribe.
The leader of the No campaign was former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe, who opposed the peace accords from the beginning. An immensely popular politician, Uribe is the leader of the Colombian right. His dislike of sitting president Santos, who was a member of his ministerial cabinet, is well known. As leader of the No campaign, Uribe’s initial objective was to shut down the negotiations and afterward, to insert himself into them. He was Sunday’s big winner: he is now the center of attention. Some analysts go further to suggest that his campaign in favor of the No is part of a longer power struggle over who plays the leading role in sealing the peace deal.
(4) The No campaign organized earlier, did so effectively, and moved quicker.
The groups that joined forces under the No campaign did so well before the government and its allies began to campaign in favor of the Yes. The campaign that the No supporters designed was effective, emotional, and media savvy. Their strategy benefited from the confidentiality that characterized the long-drawn four years of negotiation. The choice to conduct peace talks in Cuba and behind closed doors sought to shield the discussions from attempts to sabotage them, thus avoiding the mistakes made in previous peace negotiations. Yet this secrecy kept the Colombian public in the dark with regards to the terms of the deal until late in the process, well into its final stages. Those who opposed the peace talks spread biased, but emotionally compelling, information about them and started to do so well before the plebiscite was set to happen. This information was shown to be inaccurate later on, but was hard to disprove when it was initially presented.
(5) The Yes campaign started late and machine politics did not come through. It was over-confident in public opinion polls.
The Yes campaign got off to a late start due mostly to the government wanting to wait until the Constitutional Court had ruled the agreements constitutional. While the government awaited the court’s decision, the No was already mobilizing. Since official campaign season for the plebiscite was extremely short, a little over a month, the late start had important consequences. The Yes group suffered in terms of positioning their message, coordinating and setting the agenda. Finally, as La Silla Vacía astutely observed, although machine politics favored Yes supporters, the machinery failed.
(6) The No’s strategy successfully linked the peace accords with other key items in the larger political agenda: the president’s dwindling popularity and the interests of the conservative right.
The plebiscite became a no-confidence vote on President Santos and a catchall for other issues. Conservative and right-wing groups put forth a biased interpretation of the agreements, particularly as they relate to the accord’s gender perspective (enfoque de género). These groups raised concerns around what they describe as the government’s imposition of ‘gender ideology’ and a larger attack on the traditional family. In this context, discussions about the peace accord with the FARC often became debates about the president’s performance and/or discussions about sexual minority rights and the social construction of gender. The debate was polarized, and the framing successfully mobilized many religious and conservative citizens. The peace message was diluted. Divisions grew.
Just as England after Brexit, Colombia is in the midst of uncertainty and shock. The results took all involved by surprise. In the final stages of the campaign, the No team shifted from radical opposition against the peace accords toward requesting that they be renegotiated. Sunday’s electoral victory, which they did not expect, caught them unprepared and they are rushing to put together a concrete proposal. The FARC and the government have ratified their commitment to negotiation. Assuming that the parties’ willingness to negotiate is sincere, we find ourselves faced with the opportunity to build consensus around peace. This is no easy task.
At the moment, three institutional paths forward seem plausible: (1) that the accords be renegotiated and put up for a popular vote afterward; This route seems to be the preferred one, for now; (2) a constitutional assembly; or (3) that the accords be implemented after congressional ratification.
After publicly acknowledging the results, Santos called for a meeting of all political forces, a meeting that members of Uribe’s party, the Centro Democrático, chose not to attend. This decision raised concerns. The government has named the three spokespersons who will negotiate on its behalf, and so has the No. It is expected that government, FARC, and No negotiators will meet soon. The challenge is enormous: to renegotiate a 297-page agreement that took four years to craft—this time around, with new actors (No supporters) who have very few ideological or electoral incentives to seek consensus.
A more pessimistic reading of the current juncture predicts the slow death of this negotiation. From this perspective, No supporters and/or the FARC will delay the negotiations for as long as they can until they force another party from the table, thus sabotaging the entire process. Another factor that suggests pessimism is the larger context: the FARC are not the only destabilizing, illegal armed actor in Colombia. Furthermore, the activities that finance the war and those who profit heavily from them, including groups not interested in addressing the agrarian conflict that underlies the violence, are a powerful silent force. At any moment, these silent players may choose to kick the negotiation table and subvert the process. As of today, it is hard to know which is the most likely scenario.
Time is running short, and maintaining the cease-fire is getting harder day by day. Last Sunday, we missed a historical opportunity, but perhaps there is still room to maneuver and negotiate peace. Our debt to those who have been unwilling victims of this conflict is huge.
Sandra Botero is assistant professor of politics at Willamette University. She holds a PhD in political science from the University of Notre Dame, a master’s from LLILAS and a BA from Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.