Skeptical Voters Can Torpedo Colombia’s Bid to End Conflict

  • Many Colombians balk at the idea of kidnappers in Congress
  • Government says peace process is over if voters reject accord

President Juan Manuel Santos is asking Colombians to tolerate a lot that they find unpalatable -- to “swallow toads” as the local phrase goes -- in order to end five decades of conflict with Marxist rebels. Polls show many of them will refuse.

The peace deal finalized last week after four years of talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, would guarantee former guerrillas ten seats in Congress after an armed revolt that left many thousands dead. It would also enable the FARC leaders to escape jail for crimes committed during the fighting, provided they give honest testimony to tribunals, and spare them the cost of reintegrating fighters into civilian life, even though many Colombians suspect they have a fortune stashed away.

None of this is popular, yet the electorate must approve all of this and more in a referendum on Oct. 2 for the deal to pass. Santos says that a “no” vote means the end of the peace process and a return to war, though he predicts Colombians will back a deal that offers peace for the first time in half a century.

A “yes” vote isn’t a done deal, however, said Christopher Sabatini, who teaches International and Public Policy at Columbia University.

“It looks as though it’s going to be a close vote,” Sabatini said. “The key is going to be who’s going to control the narrative, and how Santos is going to explain some of the surprises that are in the peace package, like the 10 seats for the FARC in Congress. That’s going to be tough.”

For now, opinion polls are inconclusive. Half of Colombians plan to vote "no", while 39 percent would back the agreement, with 11 percent undecided, according to a survey by Ipsos Napoleon Franco and published in Semana magazine at the start of the month. Yet a Datexco poll published Aug. 26 found that 39 percent would support the deal and 28 percent oppose it, while an Invamer poll published Aug. 17 also showed a comfortable win for the “yes” vote.

‘Reward crime’

The Democratic Center Party, of former President Alvaro Uribe, is campaigning against the deal, arguing that a guerrilla force of about 8,000 fighters with almost no popular support is extorting concessions it could never have won at the ballot box. Provided they have disarmed, the rebels will be granted five seats in the Senate and five in the Lower House from 2018 to 2026, even if no one votes for them.

“This is, in a way, to reward crime, and that’s why we say no,” Democratic Center Senator Ivan Duque said in a phone interview. The nation shouldn’t compromise on key principles, such as keeping criminals out of politics, “just to please a terrorist group that has sown hate and destruction in all Colombia’s national territory.”

The guerrillas financed their military campaign with kidnapping, “taxing” the cocaine trade, and extortion of legitimate businesses. Most of its senior leadership are wanted in the U.S. for a range of crimes, and have multi-million dollar rewards on their heads.

Voters will be asked, “Do you support the deal to put an end to the armed conflict and establish stable and durable peace?”

The “yes” campaign will have the advantage of being backed by a wide coalition of government and opposition parties, and social organizations, while the “no” campaign will be largely confined to Uribe’s Party, according to Sandra Borda, a political scientist and dean of the Social Sciences Department at Bogota’s Jorge Tadeo Lozano University.

“It’s a campaign that is much more diverse than one led by a particular party, and this diversity could help it pick up more votes,” she said.

Undecided voters may come out and boost the “yes” vote, or they may not vote, but they are unlikely to back the “no” side, which probably won’t grow much beyond its current strength, she said.

In the 2014 presidential election, which was largely fought on the issue of the FARC talks, Santos won 51 percent of the vote against 45 percent for Uribe ally Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. The FARC began fighting the government in 1964 and declared a “definitive” cease fire on Sunday.

The “yes” vote may suffer from the government’s lack of popularity as the economic outlook worsens. The economy expanded 2 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, its slowest pace since 2009, while the inflation rate rose to its highest in 16 years last month. The Ipsos Napoleon Franco poll found that 23 percent of Colombians support Santos’ management of the country since his second term began in 2014, while 76 percent do not.

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