The Colombian Referendum: Why It Failed

Capitolio Nacional

Colombian voters surprised the world on Oct. 2 when they rejected the proposed peace deal between their government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Though polls projected an easy victory for those in favor of the peace deal, 50.2 percent of referendum voters rejected it, narrowly edging out the 49.8 percent that voted to accept it. The majority of Colombians desire an agreement for the disarmament of the FARC, but the leniency of the deal, disconnects between the government and rural citizens, and the association of the deal with liberal policies ultimately led voters to reject it.

The FARC formed in 1964 as the armed branch of the Communist Party in Colombia, terrorizing the country over the past 52 years in their pursuit of establishing a Marxist-Leninist state. The war between the Colombian government and the FARC has ravaged parts of the country, displacing 6 million people and killing 220,000. FARC rebels have targeted civilians and children in their attacks, enlisted child soldiers, maimed thousands with land mines, and destroyed critical infrastructure.

Fighting between the rebels and the government has declined in intensity in recent years, largely due to anti-FARC propaganda efforts and declining morale in FARC camps. Over the past four years, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has worked with FARC leaders to create a peace deal. The president hopes for a peace resolution to make the country safer, while the FARC wants peace since they now recognize war will not lead to the successful establishment of a communist state. Under the proposed deal, all rebels would hand in their weapons in exchange for political recognition and the guarantee of 10 seats in Colombia’s congress for two four-year terms beginning in 2018 and 2022. Additionally, the deal allowed for rank-and-file members of the FARC to avoid jail time if they confess to and apologize for their crimes.

Because of the atrocities Colombians experienced at the hands of the FARC, many felt the peace deal was far too lenient toward the rebels. Many Colombians affected by the conflict seek revenge and believe the current peace deal would let rebels back into society with insufficient punishment. Thus, while they desire a peaceful outcome, a sizeable faction of the electorate rejected the peace deal for its means of reintegrating rebels under an amnesty framework.

For rural voters especially, the peace deal promised an uncertain future. While the FARC is the most powerful rebel group in Colombia, other rebel groups, such as the militant National Liberation Army (ELN), hold significant influence in certain rural outreaches of the country. ELN members often employ violence against civilians, and while peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN have been discussed, no such talks have formally begun.

The FARC and the ELN are so powerful in certain rural regions of Colombia that for many people, the Colombian government offers little support or protection. In these places, the FARC and the ELN provide many basic services, including healthcare and infrastructure development. The Colombian government has never been strong enough to protect and control these outer reaches of the country, and as a result, rebel groups rule over millions of people.

If the FARC were reduced to a simple political party, its influence in these rural areas would diminish. A lack of faith in the Colombian government’s ability to adequately rule rural areas raises important questions: if the FARC is gone and the government is insufficient, who will step into these power vacuums? Will the ELN, a violent rebel group, step in and try to exert influence over these areas? What will happen to the services that the FARC has provided? Will life be worse with the deal than it is currently? Without convincing responses from the government, these questions and uncertainties led some rural voters to reject the deal, preferring to live with the status quo rather than risk a questionable future.

Colombian cultural conservatives also rallied against the peace deal. In a convoluted manner, the leadership of Gina Parody created an association between a progressive agenda for the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights with the proposed peace deal. Parody, Colombia’s openly lesbian Education Minister, proposed a manual for students related to sexual orientation in addition to mixed bathrooms and school uniforms that put less emphasis on gender. These changes angered many cultural conservatives, and protestors marched throughout Colombia urging the defense of the traditional family.

As a result of the controversy, Parody temporarily stepped down from her position as Education Minister and took a job as a leader of the movement that advocated for the peace deal. Observers are not certain why such a controversial figure was selected for the campaign’s leadership, but as she took charge, the peace deal immediately became associated with LGBTQ+ rights. Colombia is one of the most conservative countries in Latin America, and because of this connection, many fought the peace resolution due to its perceived connection with a socially progressive agenda, regardless of their preferences for peace.

The complexities behind the failure of the Colombian peace deal raise the question of how democratic countries should use referendums in decision making. As was the case with Brexit, popular narratives that may only be tangentially related to the issue at hand can lead to results that do not accurately reflect public opinion on the core issue. Voter turnout also presents a significant problem: less than 38% of the Colombian electorate voted in the referendum. Political scientists agree that pre-referendum polls forecasting a landslide victory for advocates of the peace deal caused many voters became complacent and refrain from voting altogether.

For Colombia, the future remains uncertain. President Santos and FARC leaders have already reconvened in Havana in an attempt to draft a new deal. While many voters indicated they want harsher punishments for the FARC rebels, it is unclear how FARC leaders will react to such proposals. If a new agreement can be reached, this second peace deal will similarly be voted on by the Colombian electorate, and Colombian leaders can only hope that they will accept it.

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