FARC accord rejected by Colombian public days after president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Special to WorldTribune.com

By By Benjamin Lawler, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

How did Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón of Colombia so miscalculate popular Colombian voter sentiment regarding the peace process which he negotiated over years of effort with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC)? The long-awaited Sept. 26, 2016, peace accord signing was overturned by an Oct. 2, 2016, national referendum he initiated to endorse the peace accord with FARC.

By any calculation, the failure of the referendum to endorse the peace accord — thereby nullifying it — showed that President Santos had assumed that he had the Colombian voters on board with the accord he had negotiated with FARC. He had not. Voter turnout was sparse, highlighting public ambivalence (at best) toward the accord.

President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón.
President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón.

Clearly, all the Government’s efforts had been focused on getting to the accord, and not on mobilizing public support for it. There was therefore some irony in the announcement, on Oct. 7, 2016, by the highly-political Norwegian Nobel Committee (in contrast to the mainstream Nobel prizes awarded by the Swedish Nobel Committee) that it had awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize to President Santos “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end, a war that has cost the lives of at least 220 000 Colombians and displaced close to six-million people”.

It was possible that holding the referendum so close on the heels of the accord did not give sufficient time for the government to sell the process to the electorate. On the other hand, President Santos clearly worked on the premise that he should capitalize on the media euphoria which attended the accord signing ceremony in Cartagena.

In some areas of Colombia, the accord was seen as allowing the Marxist FARC to enter the national political arena without penalty for the years of warfare against the mainstream of the country, or for transforming Colombia into a major narco-trafficking state. Moreover, the accord was seen as allowing FARC a political base which would push national politics toward leftist authoritarianism, which had been the case elsewhere in the region.

Early in September 2016 President Juan Manuel Santos had been asked whether there was a “Plan B” in case of a rejection of the peace deal referendum on Oct. 2, 2016. He replied: “I don’t have a Plan B, because Plan B is going back to war.” His insistence seemed no exaggeration in light of the recent actions taken by the Colombian Government and FARC after the narrow defeat of the referendum by voters.

Even had the accord been approved in the referendum, there was still the possibility that some elements of FARC could have broken off and continued in narco-trafficking activities, even if the mainstream of the organization disavowed such activities. A similar pattern was observed, for example, when the Government of the United Kingdom signed the “Good Friday Agreement” with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on April 10, 1998, ending the civil war in Northern Ireland. Some neo-IRA activities continued, and questions still remain about the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein.

In the Colombian context, continued narco-trafficking should be expected from Colombia’s Medellin region, at least, and with the prospect that some FARC elements would resurge to take advantage of the “market opportunity”.

Furthermore, it should be anticipated that the Cuban government, which had an ideological affiliation with FARC, could discreetly support ongoing activities of this kind.

President Santos, who has described himself as “extreme-center”, campaigned for the presidency with a tough policy on security. Many of his supporters were angered when he announced peace talks with the FARC four years ago. The war against the marxist guerilla forces had dragged on for 52 years, had cost an estimated 220,000 to 260,000 lives and left some six-million persons internally displaced.

The opposition to the peace deal, led by President Santos’ former ally, former President Álvaro Uribe Velez, was mainly critical, not of the desire for the cessation of hostilities, but of the perceived leniency given to the guerilla leaders when they had FARC members put down their arms. Many cited the allegations of human rights violations, committed by the FARC, as reasons for opposing the final peace agreement. Opponents claimed that if the deal was rejected a new peace deal, more favorable to their views, would have to be renegotiated.

But more specifically, former President Uribe said that allowing FARC to be granted — without election — 10 seats would lead to “Chavista socialism”, referencing the left-wing policies of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolas Madura, which brought Venezuela to near ruin.

When the final peace accord was agreed on Aug. 24, 2016, superficial polling indicated that it was likely that it would be approved by the majority of Colombian voters in the upcoming referendum. The accord had international support, the United States, the United Nations, and other Latin American countries voiced their support. The deal was approved by FARC members at their group’s 10th Conference on Sept. 26, 2016. The referendum was held Oct. 2, 2016 and was narrowly defeated with the “no” vote at 50.22 percent. The margin between the two sides was 54,000 votes out of the approximate 13-million votes cast, which is about 0.4 percent of the total votes cast.

As one commentator noted, human error on paper ballots is between 0.5 and 1 percent, meaning about 65,000-130,000 votes could have been misclassified. Such a small percentage difference means that the result could easily be one side or the other if a recount was conducted It should also be noted the turnout was only 37 percent, there are many factors which play into the turnout dissatisfaction of the government system, voter apathy, dispersal of voters, etc.

One significant factor was Hurricane Matthew which caused evacuation and displacement of some citizens from which turned out to be strong “yes” regions. While not necessarily the deciding factor in either vote, the effect was not marginal. That the government did not attempt to influence voting, or vote-counting, during the process seems an indication that it was completely unaware of the prospect of rejection, or, indeed, of low voter turnout.

However, with the Colombian government seemingly acceptance of the result and the immediate announcement that representatives would meet in Havana, a recount of votes was taken off the table. The Colombian government and FARC both also immediately said that the ceasefire would remain in effect. The United Nations has not, a week after the referendum, withdrawn the mission personnel which were to oversee the disarming of FARC. Whether this would occur within the next six months is unclear. What seems to be a likely path forward would be slight edits to the peace accord so that it could be presented to the electorate again in a new referendum. A favorable outcome for the government is possible, first because the vote was so close it could easily shift back in favor of acceptance, and second because the argument of the opposition was that the deal must be renegotiated.

If support for the opposition was increased and the referendum was not seen as satisfactory then the deal might be rejected again, something not politically viable for President Santos. FARC was put  in a precarious strategic situation. Seemingly convinced that the deal would go through successfully, FARC does not have any apparent fallback position.

During peace talks from 1998 to 2002, a selected demilitarized zone in Colombia was revealed in an area where FARC was re-grouping and re-arming. There was, in early October 2016, no indication of such a deception on this occasion, and with UN mission personnel on the ground it seemed unlikely major re-arming activity would go unnoticed.

While the FARC leadership, under Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (also known as Timoleón Jiménez), committed itself to this accord, it is not clear how FARC rank-and-file members will deal with rejection at the referendum.

One of the battalions, “First Front”, stated, long before the referendum, that it would not lay down its arms. Many FARC members have lived in the group their entire lives and efforts to adjust them to civilian life will be of high importance. Another worry of the guerillas is after they enter politics their party members might be targets for retribution.

In 1985, as part of peace talks with the Colombian government, FARC was permitted to form the political party, Unión Patriótica (UP). The party was then endangered by its numerous foes, including drug lords, paramilitary groups, and others. Allegedly 2,000 party members were killed and the party ceased to exist as a political entity. In order for FARC rank-and-file to be convinced that the political solution is in their best interest, an effort must be taken to ensure that political party is taken seriously. However, the political party is already likely to be influenced by Venezuela and Cuba, and this would hurt any legitimacy it would seek within the electorate.

With congressional and presidential elections two years off it gives some time to the government to sort the situation out, but the near term future remains uncertain.

The Colombian Constitutional Court reviewed and approved the legality of the referendum law on July 18, 2016. The Court’s ruling declared a number of stipulations. If the referendum passed, it should be considered locked in for the future “because popular approval has obligatory character”. Rejection in the referendum, according to the Court, would deny the President from putting it into effect. The Court, in its decision, stated that the President could not introduce the accord to Congress, and that if it were brought to the floor it must be done so by those within the legislature.

Trying to pass the deal, or another deal, through both legislative houses, whether politically possible or not, would not bode well with public perception after letting the people vote on the matter. Even if the result was extremely close the action would point to a disregard for the procedure of the referendum. Trusting the public with a direct say in critical issues has proven to be a high-risk political strategy, as President Santos and UK Prime Minister David Cameron discovered, as it was by US President Woodrow Wilson touring the US in 1919. Wilson lacked the support needed in Washington, and thought he could make it up by getting the people behind him. But there was no support from among them, either.

Today similar tactics are used, bypassing the usual legislative means, and referenda are held in order to give the victor a mandate from the people.

As in the case of the UK, Colombia — and potentially Italy in December 2016 — referenda also give a mandate for the opposition.

In Colombia, the ball is in the court of the government: what it decides, or manages, to do in the aftermath of the Oct. 2, 2016, referendum will make a peace deal possible or not.

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