Presidential Election Vital For Peace In Colombia

On 2 October 2016, Colombians shocked the world by rejecting the peace agreement between the rebel group FARC-EP and the Colombian government after more than four years of complex negotiations. The difference between the “no” and “yes” options was less than 54,000 votes. 50.2% of the voters were against the agreement, while 49.8% backed it. The results show that reaching a deal with FARC-EP was only the first step in a much more difficult path, full of social and political challenges, to come.

Colombia is clearly divided. A great polarization has emerged between those who support the peace process and those who don’t. The “no” was almost solely promoted by the Centro Democrático, a young political party created by ex-President Alvaro Uribe when he decided to pose strong political opposition to current President Juan Manuel Santos and the peace process. Alvaro Uribe is one of the most important political figures in Colombia. His influence was not only demonstrated in the voting results, but also in the last congressional and presidential elections. The newly created Centro Democrático party received the second most votes for Senate in 2014. Its candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, reached the second round in the last presidential election. Although he was defeated by incumbent President Santos, he obtained almost 46% of the votes. The implementation of the peace deal is a long-term process; thus, the 2018 presidential election is critical for the future of this deal. Centro Democrático, whose most radical politicians still believe in a military solution to the conflict, has a real chance to win office and to radically change the destiny of the country. The peace agreement is unlikely to survive in Colombia if the Centro Democrático wins the presidential election next year.

A few weeks ago, Centro Democrático held its second national convention in Bogotá, where the presidential pre-candidates and other important members stated the political position of the group for the upcoming elections. Fernando Londoño, ex-minister of justice and recently-designated director of the party, stated, “The first challenge of the Centro Democrático is to shatter that ‘damn’ paper known as the final agreement with FARC that is a claudication and cannot subsist.” He added that the 312-page document was a “rubbish product of a robbery,” referring to the signing of the deal despite the victory of “no” votes. Maria del Rosario Guerra, one of the presidential pre-candidates, pointed out that “the call is to reinvent politics to recover the social cohesion that Santos and FARC-EP broke.” Iván Duque, another shortlisted candidate, stated, “Today Colombians are outraged because the most vulgar criminals of our history have shaped justice to their impunity pretensions.” With half of the Colombian population supporting ex-president Uribe and being sceptical about the peace process, it is easy to foresee the presidential election in 2018 being as tight as the yes/no vote last year.

The presidential election polls released over the last few months are an important source of information and a warning for the government and the peace agreement. The most recent poll, done by Cifras y Conceptos, showed Santos’ former Vice-President German Vargas Lleras as the leading candidate with approximately 14% of the votes. Even though Vargas Lleras was part of the government that reached the deal with FARC-EP, the Vice-President was always distant to the peace process. Now it is not clear to Colombians that the politician does or does not support the agreement. It is even more unclear when one considers that Vargas Lleras not only strongly supported Uribe’s presidency from the Congress, but also suffered a terrorist attack attributed to FARC-EP. The Vice-President is followed closely by Senator Claudia López (11%) and former mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro (13%) in the polls. Both López and Petro have shown strong support for the peace agreement. Centro Democrático has not selected its presidential candidate yet.

A March poll suggested that around 24% of the voters would vote for the party’s candidate. This would leave the party leading the presidential polls, followed by Claudia López party—Alianza Verde—more than 6 points behind. Domestically, the positive image of President Santos is dropping, having fallen from 30% to 24% in 2017. This leaves his party—Partido de la U—in a weak position for the 2018 election. Humberto de la Calle, chairman of the government team during the peace talks, seems like a possible option for the government to maintain the current political agenda and protect the peace process. However, his formal candidacy has not yet been confirmed, and the lack of popular support for President Santos is a big liability for him to overcome.

The optimism that the final agreement between FARC-EP and the Colombian government brought to the international community, and to a large portion of the Colombian population, has been reinforced by the results of the first months of the process. In January 2017, the country enjoyed, maybe for the first time in history, an empty military hospital in Bogotá with no soldiers wounded or killed during combat with FARC-EP. In March 2017, the former rebel group handed the first group of weapons to the UN, and around 15 children that were part of the group have been returned to government institutions. It is essential this enthusiasm is not damaged by the political obstacles that the peace deal must overcome. A few weeks ago, the Constitutional Court ruled against “fast tracking” – using the mechanisms designed by the government to implement the peace deal, avoiding delays and major modifications in Congress. This caused concern to both the government and FARC-EP about the future of the deal. Humberto de la Calle encouraged the Court to “use common sense,” and added, “We have to think in the future, there is a guerrilla ready to leave the arms, please do not entangle this.”

President Santos met with the leaders of the former rebel group, and reinforced the commitment of the government to fulfil the agreement. FARC-EP leaders expressed, again, their willingness to return to civilian life. In response to the Centro Democrático position about shattering “that ‘damn’ paper known as the final agreement with FARC,” the Colombian president stated, “Nobody, no matter who arrives to the office in 2018, is going to be able to destroy any paper, because as the UN Security Council said this is irreversible.” He added, “I and all the Colombians have to make sure that this process is irreversible to any president that arrives the 7th of August 2018.”

Beyond the political disputes, the commitment shown by the government and FARC-EP to honour the agreement must be present in society. Peace needs to be a bottom-up process. Colombians must protect, embrace, encourage, and improve the deal beyond the interests and motivations of political sectors. Colombia as a nation must understand the importance of peace. Once all Colombians understand the process’s potential, the country has to work together in reconciliation.

Patience and commitment are determinants of this process. To end a 50-year-old war cannot be done quickly, and the effects may even seem negative in some regions. This year, a series of protests have arisen in some of the excluded regions in Colombia. Buenaventura, the country’s biggest port in the Pacific Ocean, is suffering social disquiet lead by a community demanding solutions to decades of poverty.  It may be difficult to understand, but protests are the signs of the benefits caused by the peace process. The end of the war is giving the chance for new social movements to grow, and allowing for the freedom to ask the government for improvements and solutions to long-lasting problems. In the past, these demands were absorbed by the guerrilla’s speech, and thus dismissed by the government in Bogotá. Colombians must not get confused; the signature of the peace deal with FARC-EP was not the solution to the problems of the country, it was only the first step in a process that requires the commitment of society to make the country a better place for future generations.

Diego Cardona T.