The plebiscite vote against the Colombian Peace deal showed a reflection of the political division and polarization of Colombian society.
On September 26th, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leader Timochenko, signed a peace deal in a spectacular event in Cartagena, with Ban Ki Moon, John Kerry, Raul Castro and almost every other Latin American head of state as honorable guests. The ceremony included a military aircraft parade and emotional tears by Mr. Santos. Nevertheless, one last step was still due in order to ratify the deal: the Sunday, October 2nd plebiscite vote.
Polls and experts agreed on the high probability of a Yes victory. Government officials were busy predicting how wide the victory would be. Even the No vote promoters expected a defeat, around a 60% – 40% difference at best.
The day came and the No vote obtained 6.431.376 million votes, against 6.377.482 million Yes votes. Neither the Government nor the No promoters had a Plan B, while FARC members lingered in limbo. The results left the country in dismay and uncertainty.
The plebiscite was a reflection of the political division and polarization of Colombian society. It was also a failed democratic experiment, plagued with disinformation, abstention and weather issues. If Hurricane Matthew had not hit the Atlantic coast on Sunday morning, the Yes would have easily surpassed the No vote.
The plebiscite results may turn out costly for Colombia, similar to the Brexit effect in the United Kingdom (UK). The University of Toronto professor Lawrence LeDuc writes “a vote that is supposed to be about an important public issue ends up instead being about the popularity or unpopularity of a particular party or leader, the record of the government, or some set of issues or events that are not related to the subject of the referendum”. This was the case for Colombia. The Yes vote won in most of the regions in which Mr. Santos had won his reelection in 2014. It’s fair to say, however, the low approval rate of President Santos ended up playing an important role in his plebiscite defeat.
Devastated and embarrassed, Mr. Santos called for order and instructed his negotiators to sit down with the No promoters, including former president Alvaro Uribe, to try to find a solution of the political dilemma. Renegotiation was the people’s mandate, they said. The meetings have already begun, but no sign of agreement appears. The No representatives, mostly Uribistas, may be wanting to dilate the process until 2018 and make an electoral credit out of it. Santos, along with protesters, are calling to accelerate the renegotiation.
On October 5th, in a surprising declaration from a leader of the No campaign, a member of the Centro Democrático party and close ally of Mr. Uribe, Juan Carlos Velez, stated the campaign had focused on emotional arguments and not on the content of the peace deal itself. He also admitted distorting information in order to convince the voters. Public opinion was shocked, while polarization intensified.
There is no simple way out for Colombia’s current crisis, although most voters expect President Santos will find a path to reach a consensus on peace. Some have called for a full application of the peace deal, ignoring the plebiscite results. Santos has ruled that out. Others have claimed for a new Constitution that involves FARC and No promoters, creating a national consensus. Santos has also ruled that out.
The most probable solution is the bilateral modification of the deal by which some of the No proposals are taken into account. Then Congress, with Government majority, can quickly approve the deal and guerrilla demobilization can finally move toward realization. The question now is will the modifications be strong enough to make the No voters settle or soft enough to make FARC leader accept them?
For now, most Colombians are spectators, waiting for the leaders to heal their wounds. Student protests have intensified, adding pressure to the renegotiations. Mr. Santos received the Nobel Peace price on October 7th, indicating strong international support for the peace process. Most of the Yes voters thought the No victory would bring a hecatomb on the long run. Now, they are all hoping their predictions where wrong.