Peace or Democracy: Which is worth more?

Cartagena - the city in which the historic Peace Accord was signed in September

Negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas have concluded. To provide the necessary legal instruments for the implementation of the peace accords, Congress has passed the Legislative Act for Peace, and Colombia’s legal system will enter a period of transition. However, the Legislative Act for Peace provides exceptional legislative faculties to the President that threaten the separation of powers. Why is this important? What does this mean for the structure of democracy as a whole?

Editor’s Note: On October 2, 2016 Colombian voters narrowly rejected the peace agreement in a referendum. A writer’s addendum is included at the end of this article reflecting on this important development, which took place between the article’s time of completion and publication.

Colombian peace agreement referendum

Negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas have come to an end, culminating in the parties signing the peace accords. On the 2nd of October, later this year, Colombians will vote in a plebiscite to express either agreement or disagreement with the content of the accords. The onset of the plebiscite has deepened ideological divisions within the country: as it stands, Colombia’s political  climate betrays the tension between those in favor of punishing the FARC guerrillas, and those who favor peaceful reconciliation  with them, but do not necessarily agree with all the articles of the accords.

The Congress of the Republic has passed a bill known as the Legislative Act for Peace, which provides the legal instruments for the incorporation of the accords into the Colombian Constitution and legal system. However, the existence of this Act has largely been kept under wraps by the media and the government. This Act gives the President extraordinary legislative faculties, and imposes limits  upon Congress if members want to discuss specific articles in pieces of legislation. The President will be able to pass decrees that equate laws in strength for 180 days, a period of time that can be doubled if the legal implementation of the accords takes longer than expected; this means the President will have the power to create legislation without any discussion of it in Congress. Crucially, only the President and the Houses of Congress will be able to pass projects of law during the period of transition; the citizens will not be able to pass projects to Congress for discussion, which is contrary to that expressed in the Constitution. The Legislative Act expresses that the aforementioned “serves the purpose” of facilitating the implementation of the peace accords.

In addition to the exceptional faculties of the President and the limited role of Congress during the period of transition that Colombia is about to enter, the Constitutional Court will not have a say in what regards changes to the Constitution. This raises more than some eyebrows, and makes those that know the content of the Legislative Act for Peace question whether the system of checks and balances will be re-established after the transition is over, or if Colombia is moving towards becoming an authoritarian presidentialist republic.. Is the division of powers—and thus Colombian democracy—in jeopardy? Or are these truly going to be mere transitory measures that ensure the construction of a more peaceful and stable society? All that is clear is Juan Manuel Santos’ administration wants to go forth with the implementation of the accords at all costs, even if it means suspension of certain systemic checks and balances.

Growing up in a country as troubled as Colombia, it is easy to get used to news about violence and conflict, and stop being shocked at things that people in other places of the world would be shocked at. That is how the conflict in Colombia has shaped the views of my generation. I am from a generation that wants the conflict to be over, for the sake of Colombian progress. But further than that, I am from a generation that wants to stop being indifferent to the horrors of the conflict. The privileged sector of society in which I was raised is oblivious to the reality of the soldiers fighting in both sides of the line of fire; and ignorant of the pain and despair of the families of peasants that had to leave their homes and move to the cities running away from the violence. I come from a sector of society that, unfortunately, would rather vote “No” in the plebiscite and reject the contents of the Legislative Act for Peace to protect the democratic institutions of Colombia: institutions that have neglected the needs of the less privileged for decades. Even though reforms like this would change the lives of the conflict’s victims, this sect of society would rather hold on their ideals even though it would have no radical impact on their daily lives.

Colombia is a country with a political history plagued by cases of corruption and abuse of power, and while the Legislative Act for Peace expresses that the President’s exceptional legislative capacities will serve the specific purpose of the implementation of the peace accords, the document does not provide any guarantees that he will not step outside of said purpose and abuse of his power. But since the endgame is peace, should Colombians take the risk of accepting an authoritarian president to ensure peace and stability? I value democracy; it may be far from perfect, but at least I am able to express my opinion and act freely without major fear of retaliation. But I also want my country to enjoy a peace that my parents’ generation—let alone mine— has not known; a peace that my grandparents’ generation has already forgotten in more than 50 years of conflict. I want to be shocked at the horrors of violence and armed conflict, instead of being used to that environment. Colombians are tired and want to live peacefully; they want to reunite as a people and leave the country’s history of armed violence in the past. Perhaps an undemocratic good could result from the transition Colombia is about to enter. Some fear mongers worry that these measures spell Colombia’s evolution into a socialist dictatorship, but I believe otherwise. While I still fear the consequences of an the excess of power that will concentrate in the hands of the President, I believe that these “undemocratic” measures are only transitory, and ultimately aim at a common good – peace.

Writer’s addendum: On October 2, the plebiscite for a “long and stable peace” took place in Colombia. The purpose of this plebiscite was to give the Colombian people the opportunity to express whether they agreed or not with the contents of the peace accords. Those who were against the peace accords won with 50.23% of the vote. This means that there needs to be a renegotiation between the FARC-EP guerrillas and the Colombian government, which now must listen to the arguments of the political coalition opposed to the accords, led by former president Alvaro Uribe. The country is now submerged in a political limbo and the future of the peace negotiations is uncertain.

The results of the plebiscite last Sunday show the great political polarization of the country. However, it is not all that bad. The leaders of the FARC-EP guerrillas have expressed their will to not violate the bilateral ceasefire, while the government has opened spaces of political participation for the opposition. This is a breakthrough in Colombian history; in the words of a law professor at CESA in Colombia: a revolution happened last Sunday. It is one of the first times in Colombian history that juxtaposed parties have seated to negotiate, instead of using violence and coercion to settle their differences in opinion. Throughout my piece, I argue that a temporary suspension of democratic institutions can contribute to the construction of a peaceful and stable society. But given these recent events, I have faith that Colombia will not only achieve the end of the armed conflict through democracy, but that there will also be a true reconciliation and strengthening of our democratic institution, thus promoting the country’s progress and welfare for its people in the long term.