The final stages towards peace in Colombia, but what of politics and plebiscite?

Uribe Santos

November has marked a productive month in terms of peace negotiations between the Santos administration and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of  Colombia (the FARC).  Whilst under pressure to reach a final peace settlement before the agreed upon date of March 23rd 2016, on Monday the government and the FARC agreed to 74 of 75 points on a transitional justice deal.  As elaborated on in my previous post, some of the more controversial points include the granting of amnesty for FARC combatants, state agents and military officials who co-operate in terms of admission to their involvement in violence, and the nature of the FARC’s political involvement after a final deal is signed.

On Sunday, the government announced that it is granting pardons to 30 FARC members as part of a broader confidence building measure between the state and the insurgency. The FARC had urged the administration to release 81 of its jailed combatants based on health grounds. This was alongside imprisoned members of the insurgency protesting with a hunger strike to demand the release of injured combatants and appropriate medical treatment supplied.  Santos’ department guaranteed that none of the combatants being pardoned were imprisoned for serious crimes, and that they will be entitled to receive help in finding employment and receiving social support once they leave prison.

Moreover, the FARC’s Commander-in-Chief, Rodrigo Londono Echeverri alias ‘Timochenko’, announced that he had ordered the insurgency in September to stop buying weaponry as part of a ‘good will gesture’.  Of course, the complexity in disarmament continues to remain, with no clear process yet established to obtain the arsenal the combatants currently hold.

However, whilst it appears quite evident that a final deal between the government and the FARC will be in fact reached, the outcome of a plebiscite still remains.  In an interview with President Santos by BBC’s ‘HARDTalk Programme’ (audio available here), Santos stated that it is easier to make war than peace, and admitted that he will be ‘in serious difficulty’ if the Colombian population rejects the peace agreement put before them.  The question was posed to the President that many influential figures, including former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, continued to remain staunch opposers to the process. It was addressed that Uribe had formally stated, ‘it is not peace that is near, it is surrender to the FARC’.  In the context of Uribe stating that the FARC was literally getting away with murder, Santos later responded that ‘if you analyse what President Uribe is saying, you will come to the conclusion that he is being a bit…emotional’.  To which the interviewer reclaimed, ‘well the Colombian people are emotional! Of course they are emotional, 220000 people died in this war!’


In staunch criticism of the peace process, Uribe often takes to Twitter to vent his frustrations.  Photo Javier de la Torre, taken from Semana

It is clear to followers of Colombian politics that Uribe continues to remain a controversial figure, but it is hard to argue against the point that he was a strong president.  Under his administration, there were crucial  improvements in the securitisation of the country (not without its controversy).  These were policies that are remembered, and were largely supported by portions of the Colombian population.  Whilst Uribe has accused Santos of selling out to terrorists, he still wields significant influence over the Democratic Center (CD) party, who continue to opposed components of the package.

Furthermore, from a legislative perspective, not all has been smooth sailing for Santos.  In a surprising move in early November, the Colombian Senate voted against a constitutional reform that would allow for FARC leaders to participate in national politics, particularly in terms of the enforcement of peace.  As quoted in a Colombian Reports article, the Minister of the Interior, Juan Fernando Cristo, stated that-

‘We took the decision to eliminate the issue of political participation from Senate approval due to some modifications that were incorporated. The truth is it will be worth it to give it more debate and make more profound reflections concerning the issue’

Whilst this also surprised the Congress, it is indeed a move that draws attention to the fact that despite good intentions, there are a variety of legal issues that could influence the implementation of a peace agreement without support. The FARC has been pushing for guaranteed seats in Colombia’s Congress a part of the ‘political participation’ and ‘end of conflict’ agenda items.  Although the government is believed to support this motion, there is various division within the legislative bodies as to how this will technically occur.

Agreement to a political solution in ending the conflict with the FARC is one thing, but agreement to allow the FARC Secretariat’s involvement in Colombian politics is another- an issue that indeed is ’emotional’, and has the potential to influence a referendum vote.  Last week Colombia’s Senate approved a plebiscite, allowing the Colombian population to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the implementation of the peace deal with the FARC.  Proposed by members of Santos’ political party as the method of ratification, the final settlement cannot be implemented without the agreement of the Colombian population despite the March 23rd deadline.

Santos is confident that there will be a ‘yes’ vote to a final settlement, and what could work in his favour is that a 13% ‘yes’ vote could ratify the peace deal, rather than a 51% majority.  Despite it being argued that such a low threshold may need to be applied to all future plebiscites, this was set as a result of  historically low turnout rates in the country.  Not surprisingly this passed in the absence of the DC, as there as disagreement with the 13% threshold.  Despite his confidence, Uribe’s influence can not be forgotten- both within official politics, and the memory of the Colombian people.

Fundamentally, a plebiscite does indeed allow a vote of emotion.  I hold high hope that a ‘yes’ majority will pass, however when dealing with such a protracted and violent conflict, historical memory comes into affect.  Should there be a ‘yes’ vote, so starts the process towards peace.  Should there be a ‘no’, I suspect we’ll have a resignation.