from Latin America's Moment and Latin America Studies Program

Five Questions After Colombia’s Surprising Vote Against Peace

Alvaro Uribe, Colombia, FARC, peace deal, plebiscite, President Juan Manuel Santos, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Timochenko

October 3, 2016

Alvaro Uribe, Colombia, FARC, peace deal, plebiscite, President Juan Manuel Santos, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Timochenko
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Pollsters’ best bets were radically overturned in Colombia Sunday, as widespread apathy and torrential rains dampened turnout in the referendum on the peace deal. Opponents of the deal appeared as surprised as anyone at their own victory, triumphing by fewer than 55,000 votes in a country of 33 million voters. Abstention topped 60 percent, and the “No” side won with the support of less than one-fifth of total voters, by a margin of 0.16 percent of those eligible to vote.

As the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff noted in a fast reaction piece, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are probably the biggest losers of this surprising upset: voters did not buy the guerillas’ makeover into legitimate political actors or feel the need to offer them concessions, such as limited jail time or guaranteed legislative representation.

President Juan Manuel Santos and his exhausted negotiators come a close second in the losing column. Although holding the plebiscite may now look like a mistake, it should be noted that there were good reasons to go down this path: the possibility of the plebiscite gave negotiators leverage to extract concessions in Havana, promised greater legitimacy, and was procedurally far preferable to the constitutional convention that the FARC had initially demanded. But now four years of very intense negotiations have landed in the dustbin, the opposition led by former President Álvaro Uribe will be emboldened, and any new deal seems likely to face an even steeper uphill battle.

Several unanswered questions will guide developments in the aftermath of this cataclysmic vote:

  1. Did the Santos administration and the FARC mean it in September when they repeatedly said that this was the only deal possible? Both FARC leader Timochenko and Santos seemed to walk back their previous statements on Sunday night. Promisingly, Santos pledged to keep the ceasefire in effect and Timochenko said negotiations would resume. But the bargaining space for the government side has shrunk dramatically, which suggests that the only real way forward is through concessions by the FARC. Given that such concessions would probably involve losses that were unacceptable to the FARC the first time around—surrendering political rights or accepting jail time, for example—it is hard to envision the path forward.

  1. This leads to a second question: how representative is Timochenko’s leadership of the FARC? There were already small pockets of opposition to the deal reported within the FARC, and failure to achieve success in the voting booth could presumably further undermine leaders’ internal standing. The FARC leadership has already made costly concessions premised on peace, including opening the group to outside observers, initial demobilization, and the destruction of munitions. How strong is the current leadership’s grip on the force, and how many new concessions can the FARC negotiators make without losing internal support?

  1. More generally, what does the FARC do next? News reports out of the guerillas’ 10th Conference suggested that many fighters were looking forward to life at peace, sleeping in the open and starting up normal lives. Does the FARC have the capacity to return to violent opposition if negotiations falter, or has the past six months’ movement toward peace sapped individual fighters’ resolve? Do renewed negotiations serve as cover for regrouping, or is there genuine commitment to finding a deal?

  1. What form does a new peace deal take? The Constitutional Court’s August ruling on the peace deal suggested that the government would be not be permitted to implement any of the deal if it were rejected at the ballot box. But could there be a workaround through passage of alternative legislative bills, as La Semana suggested in a post-vote analysis? Or would legislating an alternative deal without the cover of a popular plebiscite be politically suicidal, if voters feel that the October 2 results should only really be overturned by another national vote?Already, Santos seems to be suggesting by his actions—including the return of negotiators to Havana and a call for broad discussion among all the political parties—that a new deal is the only way forward. But there may be a broad gamut of potential alternative strategies, ranging from deepening the ceasefire and complementing it with legislative changes that provide partial gains, to calling a constituent assembly to address the issue. There is also, of course, the possibility of simply throwing in the towel, and waiting for the next president to deal with this in 2018. But Santos seems to have staked too much on a deal to spend the next two years sitting on his hands as a lame duck.

  1. What will the opposition do with this unexpected victory? It seems unlikely that the “No” victory would lead to Santos’ resignation, as some uribistas initially hinted, but how does the opposition translate this political manna into concrete policy? Does the victory enable Uribe or other opponents to push for a return to a get-tough policy against the FARC? Does it allow them to push for concessions for government actors, such as military personnel, involved in wrongdoing during the war? And is there any possible peace made by the Santos government that the uribistas could be convinced to support? Uribe seemed to be carefully calibrating his message on Sunday night: perhaps recognizing the narrow win and fearing a backlash, he noted that all Colombians want peace, but not any peace. How will the opposition position themselves next, and what levers will they use to ensure that they continue to be heard?

Correction: October 5, 2016

An earlier version of this blog post included the following sentence. “Rural areas, which have been the primary victims of the violence, voted strongly against the agreement.” This was based on an early report from the Miami Herald. More recent data suggests that rural areas nationwide may not have lined up quite so solidly against the deal. Therefore, we have removed this assertion and thank our readers for their eye to detail.

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