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Colombia’s Cranky Voters

flier with details about the public vote on the FARC peace accord, show at foot-level on a cobbled street
photo courtesy CrossMediaLab UJTL

Historians may remember 2016 as the Year of the Cranky Voter, and not principally because of anything Donald Trump has accomplished (or still may).

First, British voters overruled just about everyone in their government and mandated that the country’s politicians steer the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Then, just last weekend, voters in Colombia narrowly rejected a peace accord that would have ended more than a half-century of bloody conflict with the onetime Marxist guerrilla group known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.

The result seemed to take both voters and officials off-guard. The Miami Herald reported that most major polls gave “yes” a healthy lead over “no” prior to voting, leading some to speculate that some voters who supported the peace deal were complacent regarding the outcome or that “no” voters who meant their vote simply as an anti-FARC gesture did not think the position could actually win. In addition, bad weather caused by Hurricane Matthew may have contributed to relatively low voter turnout, at 37 percent of the registered electorate. Even former President Alvaro Uribe, who campaigned for the “no” vote, reportedly had to scramble to write a victory speech at the last moment.

So what happens next in Colombia? President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon and FARC leadership signed the accord in a highly publicized Sept. 26 ceremony attended by dignitaries from all over the world, including Secretary of State John Kerry. Now it seems those dignitaries bore witness to a wedding in which the couple forgot to take out a marriage license.

Opponents had complained from its inception that the deal, which took negotiators four years to hammer out in Havana, was too lenient to the rebels. Most guerrillas would have received amnesty outright, and those accused of more serious crimes who were willing to confess would face alternative penalties that did not include imprisonment. The deal was structured to allow the FARC to transform itself from a private army into a political party, with a chance to participate in determining Colombia’s new direction.

While it is understandable that many Colombians found the amnesty provision difficult to swallow, FARC leaders had no intention of going to jail for the kidnappings, murder and drug dealing that sustained their movement over the past decades. They planned to enter the Colombian Congress instead, taking advantage of seats reserved to them in the next two elections. In return, however, the guerillas had agreed to peacefully relinquish their weapons, bringing an end to over 50 years of fighting.

Not surprisingly, the initial reaction to the country’s vote from FARC leaders has been that it is up to Colombia’s politicians to sell the deal to the nation without renegotiation. After all, the original negotiations took years, and FARC leadership took responsibility for getting its fighters to ratify the deal as presented. But getting Colombian voters to accept the accord unchanged is unlikely to happen, at least not without more violence.

President Santos, who will remain in office until 2018, seems determined to do what he can in the time he has left. According to The Wall Street Journal, the president said he would name a committee to meet with politicians who opposed the peace deal, especially members of Uribe’s party, in order to try to respond to their concerns.

The FARC leaders were not the ones to announce an end to the ceasefire – that was Santos’ government, which announced it would end on Oct. 31. Yet it is unclear how much the FARC will be willing to compromise on the terms of the deal itself, even with this additional pressure. Rodrigo Londono, who signed the accord in September on the FARC’s behalf, has insisted that the deal as it exists is not open to revision of any kind.

Regardless of the FARC leadership’s views, however, the rebels who have been fighting fungus, boredom and the occasional military detachment in the jungle all these years seem to be ready to rejoin society. The fighters had already begun to demobilize ahead of the Oct. 2 vote, and some FARC caches of explosives have been destroyed. It isn’t clear that the rebel leaders can keep their forces from deserting if they do not quickly agree to a new deal. The FARC had long ago given up the pretense that it still represented a political movement; the rejected deal would have achieved none of the rebels’ original aims of radical land and economic reforms. What are FARC soldiers fighting for these days, other than a small paycheck and to keep their commanders out of prison?

Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, pointed out to the Miami Herald that the FARC “infused their own side with a sense that peace was possible.” He added, “Once that mental shift occurs, it’s awfully hard to get people to go back to the jungle and start fighting again.”

If I had to guess, I think there will be relatively small changes before the deal can ultimately get approved. Rebels may lose their guaranteed legislative seats, for instance, and some leaders might even be tried on the understanding that they could receive executive clemency or leniency. This presupposes that the FARC does not resort to widespread new violence, something it has thus far eschewed. In the event of new FARC aggression, all bets will be off, and the prospects for peace will recede until such time as the Colombian military eventually brings them to heel.

So maybe the lasting lesson of this episode is that in a year like 2016, no celebration of an election outcome is in order until the votes have been counted. The global electorate is in a cranky mood and does not care to be taken for granted.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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