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Colombia’s failed peace deal questions the use of referenda

ByAllegra Joly

Oct 11, 2016

After 52 years of raging, bloody conflict, we thought there was light at the end of this tumultuous tale of Colombian history. Yet, by just 0.4 per cent, the people of Colombia have voted against the peace deal which would have seen the reintegration of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)’s rebels back into society, an overhaul of the drug system, a realignment of farming schemes, and fairer political participation.
It was a deal that was praised by the likes of Obama and Pope Francis, regarded as the end of this gruesome war which has taken 240,000 lives and displaced a further six million. However, the result does raise important questions: do the Colombian people know better than the international press? Should questions of such importance be placed in the hands of the electorate? And, more broadly, are referenda suitable for guiding public policy?
The peace agreements seem, on the surface, legitimate and reasonable. They offer coca crop substitution programmes, to tackle drugs regionally (emphasising public health rather than penalisation), and propose the demobilisation of FARC rebels. But, straight away, there are glaring points of contention that are blindly perverse for the citizens whose whole lives have been blighted by fighting. Why should rebel leaders avoid jail if they have confessed to their crimes? Why should they be allowed to run for political office if they have caused so much political havoc in the past? Just because Timochenko has agreed to ceasefire, should he be able to dictate the terms so favourably for his side?
This result reveals so much more than ambivalence towards a lofty deal that concedes much to a rebel army. It illustrates, unequivocally, the deep divide within the country: cosmopolitan v rural, rich v poor, and pragmatic v idealistic. People voted against the deal due to their dislike of the President Santos, while others voted against it due to rumours of a Nobel Peace Prize for the leaders of FARC: would it be right to reward them for renouncing their arms after 52 years of slaughtering? Some, in the most devastated areas, voted overwhelmingly for the deal. Yet, the majority did not even vote: turnout was 38 per cent. This, in itself, demonstrates that people had given up before it had even started.
Referenda, on the whole, are thorny issues. Rarely is the outcome ever as clear as the yes or no question suggests it might be. Take Brexit; was it driven by disillusionment with elitist political leaders – viewed as a way of rebelling against the system – or was it, as many voters felt, a chance to win back Britain, and make it ‘great’ again (whatever that is supposed to mean)? What can be drawn from these shock results is that all too often matters of great importance are placed in the hands of people who are trying to change a lot more than just the one situation being presented. Complex concepts and promises are manipulated and simplified, creating unrealistic expectations after the result. What seems like a simple yes/no actually transforms into a hornets’ nest of other complex questions with few answers. We, as the people, want our voices heard, but the use of referenda does beg the question of whether we really are capable of making the right decision, whatever that may be.


Even though the debate over the use of referendums will continue to burn furiously, the more crucial question on every Colombian’s mind is whether the ceasefire will survive in this period of deep political uncertainty, in which there are already calls for Santos to step down.

Image: Sara Rojas

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