On October 2, in front of a crowd of diplomats dressed in white, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos proudly shook the hand of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leader Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño. Following four years of intense negotiations, Santos was on the verge of attaining the crowning achievement of his presidency.
The peace agreement reached by the Colombian government and FARC included a permanent ceasefire, concession of FARC-controlled land to the national government, reintegration of FARC rebels into Colombian society, five guaranteed seats for FARC in each of Colombia’s legislative chambers, and a joint effort to halt drug trade in the country.
The referendum on implementing the peace agreement read, “Do you support the final accord to end the conflict and to construct a stable and lasting peace?” Contrary to what all major polls predicted, support for the peace agreement lost, falling short of victory by .02%––less than 60,000 votes.
Colombia’s recent history reveals trends that might explain the referendum’s failure, the first being that Colombia consistently experiences low voter turnout. In the last four presidential elections, only once did more than 50% of voters cast their ballots, with an even smaller number participating in parliamentary elections.. On October 2nd, a mere 37% of the electorate showed up to vote on the peace agreement; while some have attributed this to the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, it is likely that voter turnout would have been low regardless of the extreme weather.
Aside from issues with the electorate, the agreement between FARC and the Colombian government was doomed from the moment that President Santos involved powers outside of his executive realm.
Santos essentially sealed the fate of the peace negotiations by allowing the Constitutional Court of Colombia to decide how the negotiations would proceed. Once both sides reached an agreement on the terms of the deal in June, Santos could have simply declared the deal official, as the president is constitutionally authorized to do. Instead of mandating the Colombian people to accept the peace deal that both parties had agreed upon, Santos asked the court to choose a course of action––it was this step that proved fatal. The Colombian Constitution of 1991 does not require the president to hold a referendum for the outcome of any negotiations similar to the peace talks. Article 104 of the Constitution states that while decisions of the people in a referendum are binding, there is no requirement for a “matter of great national importance” to be taken to a public vote. Santos likely decided to hold the referendum to allow the people to “express popular support.” The process through which peace is attained is so divisive that Santos would not have wanted to lose favor among half of the voting population; he wanted to show the opposition and the world that a majority of his constituents favored the deal.
A possibly stronger factor that drove the negotiations toward failure was the influence of Colombian politician and former president Álvaro Uribe. Uribe was the President of Colombia from 2002 until 2010, when he was deemed ineligible to run for a third term by the Constitutional Court. He managed to return to Colombia’s political limelight and has been leading the political opposition movement, which has largely been run based on fear and false information, hoping that the primary motivation for voters to choose “no” would be anger, according to the “No” campaign manager. Claiming, in letters to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, that Colombia would be the “next Venezuela” and convincing the poor that they would have to pay 7% of their earnings to former rebels, Uribe effectively swayed the result of the vote for personal gain. While he repeatedly claimed during the negotiation process that he was in favor of peace, it is apparent that Uribe manipulated voter sentiment to increase the size of his support base. Following a period of six years in which he refused to speak to President Santos, Uribe now expresses interest in negotiating for peace alongside Santos, so long as it is under Uribe’s terms. It seems as if Uribe is attempting to dethrone Santos as the champion of Colombian peace, and though he is technically banned from running for president in 2018, he has attempted to run for a third term in the past and may do so once more.
With the single remaining armed conflict of the Western Hemisphere one step away from ending, Colombia was at the threshold of peace. As surprising as it was for the international community to see the referendum fail, it is even tougher for many within the country to accept the results. The people of Cauca, an area that has experienced more than sixty documented attacks––some of the worst suffering at the hands of FARC––voted in favor of the referendum with an overwhelming 80%. Likewise, the Chocó region, which experienced a massacre of over 200 fatalities, voted 90% in favor of the agreement.
The circumstances surrounding the vote contribute to a lack of surprise concerning the results. Regardless of who is sitting at the negotiating table, peace must come to Colombia; that being said, it is difficult for one to not be disappointed with the role that partisan politics have played in prolonging a decades-long war.