The new peace deal betrays Colombian democracy

The president has U-turned on his promise to get the people’s approval

December 09, 2016
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos ©Fernando Vergara/AP/Press Association Images
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos ©Fernando Vergara/AP/Press Association Images

“Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?” As referendum questions go, it was hardly phrased in the most objective way. Nonetheless, on 2nd October, 50.2 per cent of Colombian voters disagreed with it. Now, as he seeks to end a 52-year conflict with a guerrilla insurgency, President Juan Manuel Santos has U-turned on one of his fundamental pledges of the peace process: the right of the people to ratify the final agreement. While attention was turned to the plane crash involving the Chapecoense football team, the lower chamber of the congress approved a new peace deal with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). After five decades, an end to the conflict is in sight. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has hailed “a remarkable negotiating process”; Santos has won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. But irrespective of the merits of the deal, the president has betrayed the electorate. The treaty was rejected by a razor-thin margin. At the time, Santos, who has waged his political capital on being the harbinger of peace, said that he saw the defeat as an opportunity to make an even better reconciliation pact. Instead, the president has bypassed direct democracy by putting the re-negotiated accord to congress, claiming that the last thing Colombia needed was to be divided further by another plebiscite. While there is no constitutional requirement for a referendum, Santos has reneged on his promise, one that helped him gain political support in the early stages of the negotiations. Congress may be the seat of Colombia’s elected representatives, but rarely do broken promises aid transitional justice. At its worst, it seems as though Santos held a vote to buttress his popularity and then discarded the citizenry’s wishes when it voiced its disapproval. Some commentators are even calling it a coup. Santos clearly regarded a second vote as too much of a political risk. But he was wrong. Yes, another defeat could have had a terminal effect on negotiations and may have made his position untenable, but the government would have likely won a second referendum. Turnout in October was astonishingly low (37 per cent). And as we have recently seen, a low turnout tends to favour anti-establishment candidates who have maximised their support base. Hurricane Matthew struck the country on the day of the referendum, affecting the Caribbean region. No department with a Caribbean coastline polled under 60 per cent for the Yes campaign, so the weather cost the government many votes. In any case, either the second agreement has sufficient alterations that it needs public approval for its legitimacy, or a treaty showing few changes from a rejected one is about to become law. Santos had previously said he would not re-negotiate with the FARC, declaring before the poll that the alternative to a Yes vote was an end to the ceasefire and a return to conflict. The president has moved with extraordinary pace to secure a new treaty. Another referendum would have taken about two months—risking the ceasefire, he claimed. But in the context of a 52-year conflict, what are another two months? Santos will officially receive his Nobel medal on Saturday and cynics contend that he felt he needed a deal in time to save face at the ceremony in Oslo. Colombia prides itself on its supposed democracy that, in contrast to the vast majority of Latin American nations, was only interrupted by four years of military dictatorship in the 20th century. In recent weeks, this legacy has been sullied.