The Colombian peace process post-plebiscite: what now?

The Colombian peace process post-plebiscite: what now?

After a failed referendum, a Nobel Peace Prize and currency destabilization, what can we expect from the peace negotiations? Is there a way to lasting peace? What does this uncertainty signify for Colombia’s social, political and economic landscape?

It has been almost a month since Colombians voted to reject the peace agreement through which the government and FARC would’ve put an end to a conflict that has spanned more than 50 years, cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and displaced millions more. Yet, by a very narrow margin (just over 60000 votes) the ‘No’ campaign led by former president Alvaro Uribe won.

Saying ‘no’: the politics of the Colombian peace

What exactly went wrong? By and large, international media almost unanimously signalled a favourable outcome. After all, the plebiscite was the final step in a long 4-year process of negotiations that delved into significant technical complexity in regards to thorny issues such as disarmament, demobilization, reparations to victims, and transitional justice among others. Admittedly, these arrangements take careful study to understand. The progress in negotiations had been celebrated by the international community every step of the way.  Still, whether out of misinformation, deep-rooted hatred or another reason, Colombians rejected the deal.

This is not to say that all ‘No’ voters were misinformed and hateful but rather than there was a significant percentage who were, largely led by Uribe’s claims and tactics leading up to the referendum. For instance, his campaign focused on the claim that the peace deal meant letting FARC completely “off the hook,” and encouraged a ‘no’ to peace to the current (allegedly too lenient) terms, rather than a rejection of peace altogether. It is easy to see how this would resonate with the fraction of Colombians that are both skeptical and resentful towards this peace deal after a half-century conflict. This is further exacerbated by the very delicate nature of the topic, which is guaranteed to instigate heated, passionate polarization.

Former President Alvaro Uribe.

Uribe’s background and motivations

What’s more, Uribe also appeared to be the most suitable spokesman, as his father had died at the hands of FARC in 1983. He was able to use the FARC and the ELN as convenient scapegoats to blame for any state limitation or governance failure. Whether true or not, it is undeniable that at one point he was the most popular leader across Latin America. This is in stark contrast with President Dos Santos who suffered from low popularity ratings in addition his educated, wealthy background as part of Bogota’s elite.

It is not entirely far-fetched to say that it could be within Uribe’s interests to slow talks down until they melt into the 2018 presidential election. Strategically, seizing popular votes through plebiscite rejection is not entirely out of the question either. However, given the delicacy of the current ceasefire, with all of its complex technical arrangements, peace could be more fragile than hoped for.

Voting for peace: a tale of two Colombias

Who voted yes, and who voted no? What does that say about societal fractures? The clear demographic differences provide very interesting insights into the politics of conflict and peace. To begin with, one cannot even say that the vote is representative of all Colombians: less than 40% voted, meaning many voices weren’t taken into account. This was partly due to weather conditions and their impact on transportation and infrastructure. For instance, the extreme winds facing the Caribbean made the trip from rural areas to polling stations remarkably difficult if not impossible.

More importantly, the results show a solid rural-urban divide. The peripheries predominantly voted in favour of the deal; paradoxically areas most torn by the guerrillas throughout the decades such as Cauca, Guaviare, Nariño, Caquetá, Antioquia, Vaupés and Putumayo. In some of these municipalities, the ‘Yes’ vote went as high as 86%. The big cities by contrast, voted predominantly against.

Exploring the urban-rural divide

The divide partly reflects Uribe’s presidency legacy. During his tenure, the security policy pushed the conflict to the peripheries as it made big cities safer. Most areas historically neglected by the state saw the deal as the next logical step for ending violence. In many cases, the peace deal was viewed as a complement to existing governance and peace initiatives at the grassroots level, largely stemming from the communities who have had to coexist with transnational organised crime and conflict actors such as cocaine and arms traders.

The result breakdown thus highlights the huge disparity in how victims and non-victims perceive the conflict. This revelation in turn shows that societal fractures run deeper than simple socioeconomic inequality.

What happens now?

Post-plebiscite, the risks for destabilization are high as uncertainty lingers in the air. Despite immediate reassurances from Dos Santos and FARC leader Timochenko that both parties would remain committed to achieving lasting peace, there the ceasefire can only last for so long. Given that a renegotiation of terms is likely to have a less beneficial outcome for FARC, mid-ranked leaders could opt for an early exit and potentially join ELN or other right wing, criminal groups.

The results have also definitely taken a toll on the Colombian currency. It started depreciating immediate after the referendum; a clear reflection of the damage that uncertainty does to an economy. In the Colombian stock exchange there were mixed responses, but overall there is a slight decline in stock prices. In addition, bond yields rose significantly – for instance, the one year bonds jumped up by 25 basis points after the referendum.

Current President Juan Manuel Santos

What happens next?

Amidst all this, President Dos Santos’ Nobel Peace prize is a soothing balm to conflict victims and also serves to remind all parties that unity and reconciliation are needed for securing long lasting peace. Indeed, steps such as bringing former Presidents Uribe’s campaign concerns to the table will ensure societal bridges form; bridges that will lead to way to a – hopefully – successful peace agreement in the future.

Amidst the turmoil, the political gestures and the economic repercussions,there is one certainty: frustration and anger can easily lead to new grievances and violence. As such, the coming months are a crucial time to see if Colombia achieves fireproof peace or becomes a ticking bomb.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

About Author

Gabriela Lecaro Calle

Gabriela Lecaro currently works in research in the non-profit sector and has previously worked in various independent consulting and academic projects. Her research specializes in Latin America, particularly in trade policy, macroeconomic trends and development issues. She holds a BA in Economics from the University of Manchester, and an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London.