Colombia’s president sells the skin before catching the bear
10 Oct 2016|

This year won’t only be remembered by who gets elected to the Oval Office. It’ll also be known as the year the Colombian public rejected a hard-fought peace deal with the leftist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

With the unexpected results in the plebiscite (50.24% rejected the deal), I’ve been constantly asked, what happened? Why did Colombians vote ‘No’ after 52 years of war?

The answer is that the plebiscite wasn’t just about peace, but was also about President Juan Manuel Santos and his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe’s, pursuit of power. It was about winning the people’s hearts and minds ahead of the 2018 presidential elections, when both men’s hand-picked successors will contest the presidency.

President Santos was the main proponent of the peace agreement, and his stunning defeat has brought the legitimacy of his leadership into question. Remarkably, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the conflict last Friday, with the committee making it clear the award was didactic, based on the hope that he would achieve peace. While there’s been a lot said about the reasons behind the peace deal’s failure, Santos made a number of errors that also played a role.

Firstly, he was overconfident. Buoyed by significant political support, Santos underestimated Uribe’s persuasive power. Santos enjoyed the support of 12 out of the 13 registered political parties in Colombia throughout the peace process and during campaigning ahead of the plebiscite. That political backing didn’t transcend into public support, as Uribe’s Democratic Centre Party—Centro Democrático in Spanish—managed to convince Colombians that Santos’ deal wasn’t good enough.

Secondly, he miscalculated, which is easy to do when overconfident, and is something that Santos has done a lot during the past year. He announced in September 2015, with much fanfare, that a definitive peace deal would be reached by March 2016. That didn’t happen. In June he announced that peace talks would finish by 20 July. That didn’t happen either. And he ‘sold the skin before catching the bear’ late last month, hosting a pompous signing ceremony in Cartagena, more than a week before Colombians had their say on the agreement.

Finally, he lacked focus. The peace talks became the epicentre of Colombia’s present and future, but you don’t put all the eggs in one basket. Throughout the process, Santos linked a broad set of issues to the peace accords that had little or nothing to do with the agreed agenda, including gender identity issues.

Other possible explanations include miscommunication and misinformation. Both of the plebiscite campaigns were soaked in lies, catchy-slogans, and contradictions. Reading the 297-page long agreement was a mammoth task given the 38 days between the announcement and the plebiscite. And even for avid readers, being well-informed was a challenge amid the plethora of polarised debates and opinions.

The result of the plebiscite has plunged Colombia’s future into deeper uncertainty. Santos now needs to negotiate with a strengthened Uribe before re-negotiating with FARC. Santos is rushing to save the peace deal, with the ceasefire with FARC due to end on 31 October. And even if Uribe and Santos can reach an agreement before that deadline, the country’s stability will depend on how willing FARC is to negotiate.

Polarisation is another side effect of the vote, particularly if the Colombian government re-engages in conflict with FARC. Before the plebiscite, Colombia was split between Santos and Uribe’s versions of peace. Now, it runs the risk of demonising Uribe and those who voted ‘No’.

What’s clear though is that—for now—Uribe has emerged the victor.  The UN Mission in Colombia and peace are both in limbo.  For sustainable peace, Colombia must deal with the structural problems it faces in both the cities and the countryside.

Peace is still possible and both sides have made clear they want it. But it’s probably not possible for the Santos government. Uribe’s measure of immunity in exchange for peace is different to Santos’. And FARC leaders are unlikely to concede that amount of terrain. Even if they do, coming to an agreement will take time.

If the plebiscite had gone the other way, there’d still be uncertainty, but would instead revolve around FARC’s intentions to hand in weapons, stop filling its coffers with drug-trafficking money, and what their new role in Congress would look like. Colombians may have wondered if Santos’ Nobel Peace Prize would make a difference and if Uribe’s party would still have a chance in the upcoming presidential elections.

Unfortunately, as long as Santos and Uribe retain some form of power, Colombians will remain polarised. Uribe and Santos’ legacies are hard to match and the rivalry is likely to heat up before the election.

Even if a deal is reached, a formal peace probably won’t have significant impact on the ground. With only 37% of Colombians turning out to the polls last week, it’s clear that the peace deal isn’t that important to Colombians. Perhaps after 52 years of war, they’re simply accustomed to living with it.