Colombia: One Conflict, One Vote, Two Countries

Daniela Arango – Colombia

On October 2016, Colombians went to the polls and rejected the peace agreements the government and the FARC reached earlier this year, interrupting the implementation of the post-conflict reforms. Two aggressive campaigns reigned prior to the referendum, resulting in a vote that reflected a divided Colombia, unable to reach a consensus to finally put an end to decades of conflict.

After many decades of violence, Colombia entered an unprecedented historic moment in 2012. Four years passed since the beginning of the peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the Colombian government. After the announcement of the peace agreements, the government organised a referendum that was held on October 2nd submitting the document to the people’s endorsement. The results were completely unexpected. Contradicting every major poll, the NO vote won by a minuscule fraction of the vote: with a 50.21%, while the YES campaign lost with a 49.78%, with about 54,000 votes of difference, or 0.1% of the population. With these results, the post-conflict reforms, ready to start right after the publication of the results, had to be halted; concurrently, the legislative tools that the government had prepared to start the implementation of the post-conflict reforms after the referendum also had to be discarded.

The outcome of the referendum came as a huge surprise for both sides of the referendum, as well as for the international community that had been closely following and funding the peace negotiations. The results were disappointing, in that they were hardly representative of the Colombian people: only 37.4% of the electorate voted.  This is not a rare phenomenon in Colombia, a country where the electorate lacks confidence in the democratic process, because of perceptions of an incredibly high level of corruption, and where the underfunded education system does not participate to the education of politically active democratic citizens, avoiding the teaching of the importance of the active role of the electorate. In the last 70 years, the level of participation in the presidential elections has surpassed 50% only in four cases, the most recent occasion in the year of 1998. Though many said that the near-equal split in the results of the referendum reflected the deep polarisation of the Colombian people, but the low voter turnout characterised the disinterest of the voters in the decisions made regarding of the future with the perspective of a near ending of the conflict.

Right after the announcement of the peace agreement (at the end of August 2016), both campaigns were organised very quickly and had about a month to formulate their strategies.The debate about the position towards the referendum did not spare any group: families and groups of friends were immersed in political discussions. Some groups delved into long debates, some others decided to ban this essential topic for fear of damaging the stability of their relationships. Nonetheless, despite this social effervescence, paradoxically, the interest of Colombians in the post-conflict reforms didn’t translate in a massive participation to the referendum due to the lack of a structural democratic culture.  The never-ending reluctance to the implementation of the peace as proposed in the peace agreement answered to old resentments against the FARC that hurt innumerable Colombian families and to the fear of change, on the side of the detractors of the peace document.

So why do people feel so disenfranchised even though they are a part of a country with democratic processes? An unusual answer rests in its transportation. Colombia’s urban poor in small and medium-sized cities are usually sent in buses to vote. One of the main factors why people go to the polls is because transport to polling stations is often taken care of by powerful regional politicians. In the case of the referendum, these regional politicians (including mayors of big cities apart from Bogotá) did not help to facilitate their participation. The lack of funding to take voters to the voting points has been blamed for the failure of the YES vote. To compound matters, the , people do not trust the institutions that govern them, nor do they have faith in the politicians or the political process. People feel they don’t have incentives to vote because they have the impression politicians are corrupt.

Harsh criticisms were the norm for both sides of the political contest. The campaign for the YES was considered ineffective, unable to make people go to the polls and inept in properly presenting the content of the agreements so as to convince the people. On the other side, the NO was accused of manipulating the electorate, bringing up the fear of communism that could allegedly be imposed by the FARC if they reached high positions in the government, for instance. Another political scandal that helped the NO campaigns, disrupted weeks prior to the referendum concerning the leak of sexual education booklets produced by the Ministry of Education to the public opinion. Mixed with some disinformation originating within the ranks of the promoters of the NO for the referendum, the content of the booklets enraged the parents and the christian and evangelical voters, counting for about 11 million in Colombia. This scandal was politically capitalised by the promoters of the NO who led not only the most conservative sectors of society, but also evangelical cults. The effectiveness of this campaign of discreditation was reflected on the resignation of the Minister of Education, two days after the referendum results, illustrating at the same time the conservative mentality that remains among Colombians.

In the aftermath of the referendum, amidst the disappointment of the supporters of the YES and the astonishment of the promoters of the NO, the government was compelled to include the latter, led by former president Uribe, in the re-opened peace process. Alongside with Uribe’s political party Centro Democrático, and other sectors that promoted the NO vote, such as some evangelical churches, the former president took two days to finally agree to meet President Santos to present his corrections and proposals to the peace agreement. However, the detractors of the peace agreement failed to publicly present clear and concrete corrections to the document. While Colombians witnessed political controversy after political controversy, the FARC negotiators reaffirmed their will to put an end to the conflict and deplored the intromission of Uribe in the whole process. This reassured to some extent Colombians and seemed like a wise reaction to try to convince Colombians of their commitment to the peace process.

The events that unfolded during the week following the results of the referendum were particularly unexpected. Colombia proved to be completely fractured as a result of the referendum campaigns and unable to reach solutions as a united country. For me, at first, these events made me question the existence of a Colombian nation, noticing the absence of a common denominator to the Colombian people. However, the recent citizen mobilisation, through the street protests that were organised by defenders of both sides for the referendum, illustrated the commitment of the people for the peace in the country. This also showed that people, despite different opinions, wanted to overcome the polarisation that escalated during the campaign to put end a conflict that affected the entire population to a greater or lesser extent. Thus, beyond the regular democratic participation modalities and putting aside partisanship affinities, Colombians of all ages and socio-economic background demanded the political establishment of different political sectors to take action and reach a final agreement in order to unblock the crisis the country is living, and start implementing the post-conflict reforms.