Santos’ latest political heuristics may pay off for Colombia
President Juan Manuel Santos has made clever moves in the Colombian political debate, introducing a new element that may shift the discussion in his favor.
Since the peace negotiations between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began almost three years ago, the national political debate has generally remained centered on the content of the eventual agreements and the applicability of the terms being discussed.
The main points of contention revolved around giving retired FARC members legal benefits, such as alternative punishments or special transitory seats in Congress.
Last week, President Santos flew to Havana and met Timoleon Jimenez, FARC’s top commander, in a historic shaking of hands that caught most spectators by surprise. Both leaders announced they had reached an agreement on the fifth point of the agenda: transitional justice.
It is an important step forward the final completion of the accords, but it also symbolized the huge divisions within Colombia regarding the peace process. Hours after the announcement had been made, detractors were hammering the agreement, calling it a “coup to democracy.”
There has never been a consensus among Colombians on the aspects being negotiated in Havana. Some, represented by the Centro Democratico and Partido Conservador parties, prefer a tougher stance, in which the FARC would have to concede absolute and unconditional defeat.
Other political parties in Colombia, such as the Partido Liberal and the governing Partido Social de la Unidad Nacional, are pushing a quid pro quo diplomatic agenda with no clear winners or losers, in which negotiations develop on an equal playing field.
Santos’ “little congress”
In early September, President Santos introduced a new concept called “Congresito,” or little Congress. A Congresito is one of many ways of formally approving and legitimizing the eventual peace accord, consisting of the installation of a special legislative committee composed of just a few congressmen.
A Congresito would insulate the approval process by keeping it within a subsector of the legislative branch, avoiding a tedious ordinary legislative vote. The approval of the reform that creates this special committee is scheduled for debate in the Senate by early October.
As the Congresito reform starts its process in Congress, it will divert energy from the substantive political debate into the highly technical and legal debate. With the question of a Congresito on the table, public opinion will not be interested in how the peace accords are achieved, but rather in how they will be ratified and legitimized.
Opposition members allege that the Congresito is an unconstitutional move because it seeks to skip the regular legislative and legal process for an amendment of this magnitude. Others consider it undemocratic, saying the government has conceded too much prerogatives to the FARC. Polls show most Colombians disapprove of what has been agreed upon with the FARC. These initial reactions by media and leaders are a preamble to the larger discussion that awaits.
Division continues in Colombia
There is doubt about the viability of Mr. Santos’s new initiative because, currently, the peace negotiations are not a sure deal. There is no national consensus around the substance of the negotiations, yet the debate will start to revolve around ratification.
Given the long and unpopular trajectory of the peace process, Santos may finally shift the discussion to his side. Almost subconsciously, pundits will now take for granted the fact that the agreements are going to be approved and therefore only need to worry about the technical legal “how” instead of the substantive socioeconomic “how.”
When the discussion about the Congresito reform formally begins in Congress, the technical aspects of ratifying the peace process will consume the national public debate, leaving the transitional justice issue behind. Public opinion will get distracted from the original discussion about the content, to continue a less polarizing one about the form.
Heuristically, it is a clever political move that might rescue a peace process about which most Colombians are skeptical, and a president whose approval rating sits below 30%.