Yesterday by a razor thin margin, Colombians voted “No” to a referendum on the peace talks between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While the No vote is a major blow to the peace process it is does not mean that the process has ended. Both sides of the conflict expressed their intentions to continue advancing towards a politically-negotiated solution to the country’s 52-year internal armed conflict. The bilateral ceasefire that has given the nation a respite from systemic abuses in recent history still holds. Both parties have expressed their intentions to not give up on peace and to figure out a way out of this crisis. At this delicate uncertain moment, it is imperative that the international community politically supports peace in Colombia.
The results of the referendum were not a vote against peace. Most Colombians want peace in their country. The No vote relates more to the incentives given to the FARC guerillas to lay down their arms. The referendum’s outcome also shows that a clear division exists between areas hard hit by conflict and areas that have been traditionally removed from war. The majority in the periphery of the country voted for the peace deal. Municipalities where atrocious abuses took place at the hands of the guerillas like Bojaya and Tumaco voted for ending the conflict. The economic and political elites who are not impacted by the conflict and fear losing their economic advantages voted No.
Fear mongering and a misinformation campaign from the former President Uribe camp also played a role. Uribe supporters played into the hatred that a portion of Colombian society feels for the FARC, arguing that Colombia would falsely turn into a Cuba-Venezuela like state. Also, the length and complexities of the agreement, most notably the justice section as well as the short time frame that Colombians had to digest the accord, allowed for those wanting to sabotage the effort to distort its contents, generating fear among voters. President Juan Manuel Santos’ unpopularity and his government’s inability to fully communicate the benefits of peace to a particular sector of society contributed to this polarization.
In addition, 62.59 percent of Colombians chose to abstain from voting which could reflect a strong sense of apathy towards the process. This abstention could also mean that political parties did not activate the political machinery to get a more representative turn out. Hurricane Matthew may have also played a role in decreasing voting in the northern part of the country.
The message that came out loud and clear is that there is a sector of Colombian society that is unwilling to grant the FARC amnesty or to see them in political office. Whether it is due to hatred, self-interest, misinformation, or because they don’t think it is sufficiently just, these are Colombians who need to be brought on board for a true peace to take hold.
President Santos is correct in bringing together the political parties to determine a constructive way forward. The international community must do its utmost to support this effort to end decades of violence so that Colombia can build a true democracy, where differences are resolved through dialogue and not violence.