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Colombia’s elections in May could determine the fate of the peace deal

Concerns about violence may push voters to the polls, this research shows

Supporters of Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro attend a rally in Medellín, Colombia, on April 22. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images)

After a volatile four years that included increasing assassinations of human rights and environmental rights leaders as well as massive protests, Colombia is in the midst of a historic election cycle.

Voters in the May 29 first-round elections will contend with a number of crucial issues. Colombia’s inflation and economic crisis are a concern. And the country’s historic peace agreement is on the rocks, while Colombia faces large-scale immigration from Venezuelan refugees along with immigration from continued internal displacement as a result of violence from armed groups.

At the forefront for many Colombian voters is the fate of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the leftist guerrilla group The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The historic accord represented a potential end to the longest-running conflict in the Western Hemisphere — but the implementation appears in trouble.

President Iván Duque, a right-wing politician, campaigned in 2018 on the promise of dismantling the accords. The current favorite to win, Gustavo Petro, is a demobilized guerrilla member from the leftist M-19 group and is a favorite to win this year’s elections.

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Past research on legacies of political violence suggests voters who have been exposed to violence in the past tend to vote more militantly — supporting politicians who are “war hawks” as opposed to “peace doves.” However, my research shows that in municipalities where there had been violence perpetrated by FARC, there was more support for “dove” policies, like the 2016 referendum vote.

Here’s how I did my research

To study how the legacy of political violence affects how citizens vote, I looked at three different elections in Colombia. These elections focused on the issue of peace and the peace agreement with the FARC: the second round of the 2014 presidential elections, the 2016 referendum vote on the peace deal itself, and the second round of the 2018 presidential elections when Duque was elected. While the referendum failed by a narrow margin, Colombia’s congress later approved the peace deal.

I analyzed data on violent events that took place in Colombian municipal administrative regions from 1992 up until 2012, compiled by the Colombian investigative research center The Center for Popular Education and Investigation, CINEP. I also gathered information about local populations and economies from Colombia’s National Administrative Statistic Department (DANE). And I collected the 2014, 2016 and 2018 election results at a municipal level from DANE. To these, I added further information about the risks of electoral fraud and violence, as well as the presence of armed groups, using data from the International Mission for Electoral Observation (MOE). Using this combined data set, I explored the relationship between the legacies of political violence and voter behavior.

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How does violence leave an impact on voters?

My study suggests that people exposed to violence committed by the members of the FARC were more likely to have voted in support of a peace deal with the FARC.

In 2016, Colombians who had been exposed to violence were more likely to turn up to vote, in comparison to those who lived in municipalities exposed to less violence, or no violence at all. And in 2018, people were more likely to turn out to vote and less likely to vote for Duque, who many saw as representing a “war hawk” option.

Past studies have argued that violence begets more violence. However, in the case of Colombia, voters exposed to violence appear more likely to support pro-peace candidates and policies rather than risk a return to violence, under leaders they perceive to be more militant in nature.

The lived realities of many Colombian citizens involve histories of violence, rising levels of inequality and government corruption. Whether a left-wing or right-wing candidate is in office may not matter much, given those serious challenges. But in the 2016 plebiscite vote to approve the peace deal, citizens saw something that could change their country, making it worth the risk.

What does this mean for the 2022 elections?

As Colombia continues to see assassinations of human and environmental rights activists, as well as the assassination of demobilized FARC combatants, many citizens are wondering if the 2016 peace accords will go down in history as yet another failed attempt to bring the country peace and security.

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Whoever wins the upcoming election has serious implications for the accords — if the next Colombian presidential administration does its best to circumvent the accords, the peace deal may fail. But the peace deal could endure, if the next president displays a real commitment to holding up the Colombian government’s end of the bargain, such as providing more aid to affected municipalities and providing more protection to community leaders in regions where there is an uptick in armed group activity. Duque has done his best to slow the implementation of the peace accords, including an attempt to block the jurisdiction of the transitional justice court, the JEP.

The results of the congressional elections last month suggest that Colombians want change. Voters are concerned about the economic crisis in Colombia, as well as a surge in crime and armed groups that reconsolidated in the countryside when implementation of the peace accords slowed.

Petro decisively won the presidential primaries in March. He has campaigned on promises of a commitment to renewing the languishing peace deal, replacing fossil fuel profits with those from other sectors, and wealth redistribution. My research suggests that Petro’s stated commitment to the 2016 peace deal could help his campaign, even as his other policies and guerrilla past may divide some voters.

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Shauna N. Gillooly (@ShaunaGillooly) received her PhD in political science from the University of California at Irvine, where she specialized in international relations and peace and conflict studies. She is a Leading Edge Post-Doctoral Fellow with the American Council for Learned Societies (ACLS).