On Sunday, the Colombian people rejected the recent peace deal that the Colombian government had reached with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after 52 years of civil war. The plebiscite narrowly failed: 50.2 percent rejected the peace accord, while 49.8 percent were in favor.
What, exactly, were Colombians voting on?
Colombians cast votes on whether they support the peace agreement, reached in August and formally signed on Sept. 26. The content of the 297-page peace accord had been made public before the vote.
Who voted no?
The “no” vote is not representative of all Colombians. Less than 40 percent of Colombians voted in the plebiscite, leaving many voices unheard. This was partly related to weather conditions; the Caribbean region faced a hurricane, making the journey to the polls extremely cumbersome, especially in rural regions where delicate roads become impassable during heavy rain.
For many voters, a no vote was not a rejection of peace, but a rejection of peace under the given terms. This stance was championed by former president Álvaro Uribe, who led the no campaign. His followers want to see harsher punishment for the FARC, even if in the eyes of the negotiators this was impossible because doing so would lead the FARC to reject the deal.
The vote shows a solid rural-urban divide in Colombia. The country’s peripheries, most torn by the war, predominantly voted in favor of the deal, whereas the majority in the interior of the country voted against. (A notable exception was Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, another supporter of the deal.)
The contrast in rural and urban voting may reflect a legacy of Uribe’s presidency: His Democratic Security Policy made Colombia’s cities safer and pushed the conflict toward the peripheries.
In border departments such as Nariño, Putumayo and La Guajira, people have suffered under state neglect, the presence of conflict actors and transnational organized crime, especially the cocaine trade. Ending violence by voting for peace was a logical next step in areas that had already started local peace initiatives such as the one in Samaniego. This community managed to decrease armed activities in its territory through nonviolent resistance based on unity and collective leadership. Of course, not all local-level peace initiatives in Colombia saw the same.
There were two peripheral departments that voted no: Arauca and Norte de Santander.
Arauca is a stronghold of Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, the ELN. People’s main concern there is how to navigate life under this insurgent group, making considerations of people to vote for or against peace with the FARC very different from elsewhere in the country.
Norte de Santander experienced misinformation campaigns led by locally influential right-wing groups that emerged after the official demobilization of the paramilitary umbrella organization AUC. As a result of these campaigns, some people believed a successful peace deal would mean handing the country over to the FARC. Also, in the face of neighboring Venezuela’s economic and political crisis, people were told that the peace deal would make Arauca and Norte de Santander, the border regions most closely linked to the neighbor, vulnerable to a spillover of that turmoil.
What’s next for Colombia?
Shortly after the announcement of the results, both President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timochenko addressed the public. Santos emphasized that the cease-fire and end of hostilities against civilians that took effect Aug. 29 will hold. Reaffirming his commitment to achieving peace, he said he will convene all political parties the day after the plebiscite to consult them on the next steps. Timochenko likewise reiterated his commitment to peace, stating that this shall be achieved with words rather than with arms.
Nevertheless, the risks for destabilization are high. The FARC leadership is and most likely will remain in Havana for the time being. But mid-ranking FARC commanders are in Colombia. Many of them already had moved their troops to the regions of “pre-concentration” to get ready for the final demobilization process, which was supposed to take place in designated territories across the country.
FARC members in Colombia may now decide to opt for an early exit, and join groups such as the ELN, right-wing or criminal groups, as a potential renegotiation of the peace deal is likely to have a less beneficial outcome for them. These other violent nonstate groups can take advantage of the general uncertainty in the country. Uncertainty can easily turn into frustration and anger, which may lead to new grievances and violence.
The symbolic signing of the peace deal just one week ago was not in vain. It was a gesture of reconciliation between the FARC and the government. A substantial part of the Colombian population demonstrated with their votes that they are ready to join this “Pact of Reconciliation,” as some voices suggest it may be re-labeled. It was just not enough to constitute a peace deal for all Colombians.
The next few weeks, months, and maybe even years, will be a hard test for Colombia’s commitment to peace. This campaign fell short of solidarity with those who have suffered most in this five-decades-long war. It has shown the disconnect between the elites in Bogotá and the country’s marginalized people, whose concerns and fears were little accounted for.
Reaching true consensus
But the current situation is also an opportunity to reach a true consensus through renegotiation. Santos’s plan to include Uribe’s camp in the deliberations on the next steps helps build bridges across society, which is essential to thwarting polarization and division. It is hoped that this will yield an agreement that is built on unity and thus is more conducive to sustainable peace.
Annette Idler is director of studies at the Changing Character of War Programme at Pembroke College and a research associate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. Her work focuses on the links between conflict, organized crime and security, and she has carried out extensive fieldwork in the war-torn border areas of Colombia and neighboring countries.