Why Colombia voted ‘No’ on peace referendum


colombia'speaceA Colombian peace deal that the president and the country’s largest rebel group had signed just days before was defeated in a referendum on Sunday, leaving the fate of a 52-year war suddenly uncertain, The New York Times reports:

A narrow margin divided the yes-or-no vote, with 50.2 percent of Colombians rejecting the peace deal and 49.8 percent voting in favor, the government said. The result was a deep embarrassment for President Juan Manuel Santos. Just last week, Mr. Santos had joined arms with leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, who apologized on national television during a signing ceremony.

“Everyone has said, including those who sided ‘no,’ that they could renegotiate the deal, but obviously that would have political challenges,” said César Rodríguez, the director of the Center for Law, Justice and Society, a nongovernmental organization. “It was a small majority, but a valid majority, and that has consequences.”

The Colombian people’s shock rejection of a peace deal between Bogota and the communist FARC rebels has all but annihilated the former enemies’ chances of securing a Nobel peace award, experts said Monday, AFP reports:

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC chief Rodrigo Londono, alias Timoleon “Timochenko” Jimenez, had until now appeared to be serious contenders for the prestigious award after signing a deal on September 26 to end 52 years of civil war.

“In this context … the Colombian peace treaty or anybody associated with it simply is not a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize this year,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of Oslo’s Peace Research Institute (PRIO). “I think it is simply off any credible list,” he added,

Colombia-ICTJFor many voters, a no vote was not a rejection of peace, but a rejection of peace under the given terms, says Annette Idler, director of studies at the Changing Character of War Program at the University of Oxford. This stance was championed by former president Álvaro Uribe, who led the no campaign. His followers want to see harsher punishment for the FARC, even if in the eyes of the negotiators this was impossible because doing so would lead the FARC to reject the deal, she writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:

The vote shows a solid rural-urban divide in Colombia. The country’s peripheries, most torn by the war, predominantly voted in favor of the deal, whereas the majority in the interior of the country voted against.(A notable exception was Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, another supporter of the deal.)….But the current situation is also an opportunity to reach a true consensus through renegotiation. Santos’s plan to include Uribe’s camp in the deliberations on the next steps helps build bridges across society, which is essential to thwarting polarization and division. It is hoped that this will yield an agreement that is built on unity and thus is more conducive to sustainable peace.

The outcome of the vote will likely be analyzed for years to come, but Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said Santos may have been hurt by the international fanfare and public display of warmth toward the FARC during the festivities, The Miami Herald reports:

International support cuts both ways, said Shifter. It can give a campaign a push, but the war is deeply personal for many Colombian families, and they may have not appreciated world leaders weighing in so publicly via the ceremony on what is considered an intimate national decision.

colombia pic“I wonder to what extent there was this ‘Who are these foreign leaders to tell us how we should vote?’ ” said Shifter [a former program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy]. “Having all that international presence may have hurt as much as it helped.”

The government and numerous civil society organisations such as Dejusticia, the Colombian Jurists Commission, and the Washington Office on Latin America have mobilized to increase public support for the agreements, reports suggest.

The FARC kidnapped and killed civilians, carried out indiscriminate bombing attacks and extorted small businesses in the areas under their influence. “They developed one of the worst human rights records among leftists in Latin America,” said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “They disregarded public opinion to the detriment of their own self-interest,” he told The Washington Post.

Several unanswered questions will guide developments in the aftermath of this cataclysmic vote, analyst Matthew Taylor writes for the Council on Foreign Relations:

  • 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.
  • 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?…..



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