from Latin America's Moment and Latin America Studies Program

Credible Commitment and the Colombian Peace Plebiscite

Colombia, Colombian peace process, FARC, President Juan Manuel Santos, Alvaro Uribe, civil war, public ratification, peace plebiscite

August 22, 2016

Colombia, Colombian peace process, FARC, President Juan Manuel Santos, Alvaro Uribe, civil war, public ratification, peace plebiscite
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The Colombian peace process began in 2012, and by June 2016, appeared to have reached preliminary agreement on a deal that would result in the cessation of hostilities, ending a war that has killed more than a quarter of a million Colombians. Yet somewhat surprisingly, while the deal was initially celebrated as a milestone, recent polling suggests that a declining share of Colombians would actually support it: 39 percent in August, down from 56 percent in July.

The reasons for opposition are multiple, including belief that some abuses by the FARC are too atrocious to merit amnesty, annoyance at the possibility that FARC representatives may be given congressional seats, fear that state capacity to effectively implement the accords is too weak in previously contested regions of the country, opposition to land restitution programs, and resentment at the possibility that government forces may be judged by the same tribunal that judges FARC members. Domestic political considerations also play a role, including the long-standing feud between President Juan Manuel Santos and his conservative predecessor, Álvaro Uribe; and declining support for Santos, which may drag down support for the deal.

But surely the Santos government was aware of most of these challenges? And why on earth pledge to have the deal ratified by the public, if doing so would subject it to all sorts of criticism and the possibility of defeat? The answer may lie in the three intertwined strategic explanations:

  • First, academics point to the importance of strategic calculations in ending civil wars: reaching peace depends on what sort of incentives dissident groups have to resort to violence rather than committing to peace. Oftentimes the situation must get so bad that opposing sides have little choice but to reach agreement, painful though that may be. But even once both sides are committed to negotiating, structuring the post-conflict incentives is often a case of the pragmatic and artful bending of each side’s desired outcomes toward a core of commonly acceptable, if seldom entirely desirable, compromises. By all accounts, the FARC’s leadership is near exhaustion, but they had some advantages, including the ability to hold on indefinitely in impenetrable terrain and cause murderous violence at will. The big challenge was to ensure that they saw benefits to negotiating an end to the conflict, which implied government concessions that would bring them to the table.

  • Second, achieving the peace is a game with many players, in which the negotiators may not have unconditional support at home. Even in a two-sided conflict, each side’s negotiators must go home to their constituents and explain the deal, often to second-guessing armchair negotiators who have no reason to reflect on how many late nights and what sorts of complex concessions went into each element of the treaty, and who may be more focused on the war than on the peace (suffice it to note, by way of example, that even as the United States’ Civil War wound down, Abraham Lincoln was unable to push forward his amnesty resolution for the South because of homegrown opposition in the North).

  • Third, the logic behind ending the violence is quite different from the logic of maintaining the peace: there is an inherent tension between the types of commitments that both sides need to make in order to end aggression and the long-term conditions that would maintain the peace. All sides to the conflict need to be able to offer some sort of credible guarantee that they have abjured violence: the winning side has to offer some credible assurance that it won’t simply use the peace to obliterate the losers, while the disadvantaged side needs to offer good reasons why it won’t try to improve its bargaining position through violence once the winning side begins to make concessions for the long-term.

In committing to public ratification of any peace deal, the Santos government added a broad range of voters to the mix of implicit parties to the negotiations, in ways that may increase the legitimacy of the peace, enhance the transparency of the process, and lock in the treaty politically. Santos also scored an important victory in the constitutional court’s decision that the plebiscite should face an up or down vote, rather than a messy set of votes on each point of the agreement.

Although it adds to the difficulties of the peace agreement, the fact that the deal was always subject to public ratification may also have provided a strategic advantage to Colombian government negotiators. From the negotiating table in Havana, Colombian negotiators could point south at Uribe and other hardliners, warning their FARC counterparts that there were limits to what they plausibly concede. The prospect of democratic ratification, in other words, may have shrunk the possible range of options the Colombian government could agree to, but by narrowing the negotiating space, it may also have made the government’s commitment to its bargaining position more credible.

Going forward, the most complex challenge will be to finalize the negotiations with the FARC even as the plebiscite campaign is simultaneously underway. Already “Yes” and “No” supporters are locked in rhetorical battle over how to frame the issues in the public eye. The silver lining is that the need to obtain democratic approval may have enabled the Santos government to obtain a better deal from the FARC than might have otherwise been possible. Whether that deal will prove acceptable to voters, of course, is the big question that will dominate Colombian politics for the remainder of the year.

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