The pollsters got it wrong again, this time in Colombia. On Oct. 2 Colombian voters rejected a peace pact with the FARC, known as the Revolutionary Army Forces of Colombia, in a surprise outcome following a plebiscite that plunged the country into uncertainty. Since 1964, when government troops attacked a hamlet of rebellious communist peasants who went on to form the FARC, more than 220,000 Colombians have been killed and at least 7 million driven from their homes. However, it seems many Colombians didn’t see this deal as being that key, after 62 percent of eligible voters didn’t show up, despite the President Juan Manuel Santos’, insistence that Colombians were facing the most important political decision of their lifetimes.
Colombia’s president moved quickly to try to keep alive a peace bid with Marxist rebels after the vote— throwing into doubt efforts to end half a century of rebel war and leaving both sides scrambling to plot their next moves. Both the President, who had warned there was no Plan B, and the FARC said the ceasefire announced during negotiations will continue as negotiators continue working. President Santos took a significant risk by insisting that the accord — the product of tedious, grinding negotiations with the FARC — would be valid only if Colombian voters gave their blessing. He said he would meet with Colombia’s opposition, led by former president and senator Álvaro Uribe, a mortal enemy of the FARC who has gained powerful new leverage over any potential attempt to rewrite the peace deal. However, one needs only look at the enormous political fallout of the UK’s bombshell Brexit vote in June to appreciate how arduous it will be for Colombia to implement the unpredictable will of the people. The Colombian economy is already faltering on lower commodity prices and declining oil production.
The proposed peace deal between the FARC and the Colombian government had taken nearly six years to negotiate, and it won support all over the world, including the United States, the United Nations and Pope Francis. The narrow, unexpected defeat of the deal is the latest example of a popular backlash that has bucked polling data and defied elite opinion. However, for many Colombians, the referendum was about far more than a cease-fire with the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Critics say it was far too lenient on the FARC: they long ago mutated from an agrarian militant Marxist uprising to a narco terrorist network. The deal with the rebels, became a hard sell with voters because of the terms. They included what many called a “wrist-slap” for FARC commanders whose guerrilla tactics included bombings, kidnappings, murders, drug trafficking and the forced recruitment of minors. Many suffered personally from the war and were not ready to forgive the FARC — or at least not through an accord like this one.
Former president and senator Álvaro Uribe was one person who led the opposition to the accord: “We insist that corrections need to be made to respect the Constitution, not replace it,” he said, calling for a “national pact” to rework the deal. The “transitional justice” element of the peace accord would have allowed FARC leaders to avoid prison if they fully confessed their crimes and made reparations to victims. Uribe could negotiate further however reopening the negotiations will almost certainly mean harsher terms for FARC leaders and it is hard to see FARC accepting a new deal that jails many of its members for lengthy times behind bars.
So are Uribe and Santos the Colombian Cameron and Corbyn? They are certainly of contrasting personality. Mr Uribe is both intense and folksy, whereas Mr Santos is cerebral and urbane. Uribe, whose father , a cattle rancher, was killed by the guerrillas, is beloved by the traditional Colombian landowners who bore the brunt of the FARC’s rural terrorism. Santos is a member of the wealthy and influential Santos family. More importantly, they differ as to how Colombia should be run. Maybe a coalition would be the answer. One US official said a national unity coalition that could transcend Uribe’s rivalry with Santos and produce a new, broadly supported peace accord could be a better outcome.
In the end, many Colombian voters were skeptical of Santos’s promises of sweeping transformations and peace and appear to have sided with Uribe’s darker vision of the accord as a FARC Trojan horse to take power.