October 4, 2016
In a result that shocked most – including the pollsters – Colombians voted to reject an historic peace accord that would have ended the brutal, 52-year-long conflict between government forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
However, early signs show neither side is rushing to renew conflict immediately. Many observers hope that this breathing room while next steps are assessed, for now, means that Colombia’s emerging place as a more stable and democratic choice for foreign investment in the region will not be jeopardized. However, with the “No” vote being fueled not just by the content of the accord, but by an array of other simmering political issues, it likely means a new solution will only be forged – if at all – over a long, 2-plus year period amid the country’s next presidential election in 2018.
The plebiscite, held on Sunday October 2nd, capped 5 years of negotiation that sought to finally end a conflict that has caused more than 200,000 deaths and left more than 8 million Columbians designated as victims.
Despite being validated by International Courts, the United Nations and a myriad of international leaders, the vote’s result showed that a majority of Colombians deemed the agreement excessively generous. For example, in exchange for demobilization, surrendering weapons and abiding by Colombian law, the agreement would have given approximately 14,000 demobilized guerillas an income close to minimum wage for two years; guaranteed 10 seats in Colombia’s Congress for a new FARC political party; and used a special transitional justice policy that would provide alternative sentences for leaders rather than jail time and amnesty for rank-and-file guerrillas. The surprising success of the “No” campaign, which was led by former presidents Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana, was driven by a clear narrative that called for renegotiating the accords in order to eliminate the perceived excesses.
But not every explanation of the plebiscite resides on the accord content. Many Colombians, having witnessed next-door neighbor Venezuela’s socialist catastrophe, feared the peace process would produce a leftist regime in their own country. In addition, the most conservative sectors of Colombian opinion – outraged by progressive policies such as same-sex marriage and adoption laws – were exacerbated by a recent scandal on liberal sexual education manuals for school teachers and a school survey of students about sexual abuse, which led to large protests by religious communities, who expressed their outrage by endorsing the “NO” campaign.
In the end, the indignation of conservative Colombians, the low popularity of President Juan Manuel Santos after six years in office, and Colombians’ deep-rooted mistrust and contempt for FARC guerrillas came together to fatally wound the peace accord from moving forward. Further exacerbating the charged political climate, many voters used the opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction with the current state of the economy, the likelihood of new taxes, and other financial concerns – a similar dynamic seen in many other referenda conducted around the globe this year. Sealing the accord’s fate, Hurricane Matthew hit the Colombian shores on the very day of the plebiscite, drowning the Caribbean coast and bringing heavy showers in most of the country, resulted in a very low turnout in predominantly “Yes” regions and contributed to the overall low turnout rate (only 38 percent of eligible voters casted a vote).
As it happened with United Kingdom’s “Brexit” vote, no one – not even critics of the proposal – saw it coming and no one was ready for such a result. Only a week before the plebiscite, the more conservative polls anticipated a 14 percent lead in the “Yes” vote and most mainstream polls gave it a more than 20 percent lead. Some pollsters have suggested that a “hidden No” group of voters were there all of the time, but were embarrassed to confess publicly their rejection of the peace accords and instead expressed it anonymously at the ballot box.
Once the results were announced, a stunned President Santos reacted quickly, confirming his decision to maintain the cease-fire with FARC, convening all political forces – particularly the “No” movement – and creating a wide-ranging national dialogue in order to salvage the peace initiatives and explore a new course of action. Equally-surprised opposition leader Alvaro Uribe restated his willingness to seek a negotiated outcome and revise the accords. FARC negotiators expressed from Havana their commitment to peace. Still reeling, no one has presented a Plan B yet and many Colombians doubt a more punitive accord between extreme right movements and extreme left guerrillas is reachable in the short term. Many are concerned about the impact this will have on the economy, as the country’s GDP was estimated by the government’s National Department of Planning to grow an additional 1 to 1.8 percent per annum post-accord.
The voting results reflect a deeply divided Colombia, split in half after a decision that was determined by just 0.5 percent – or approximately 60,000 – of the 13 million votes cast. Although turnout was low, the outcome clearly tilted politics to the right.
The plebiscite outcome was, at least partially, a rejection of President Santos’ Administration. His last two years in office will be shaped by this result and many are skeptical that the Santos government can renegotiate and find a middle ground between FARC and the country’s right-wing opposition. Although he still has a majority in Congress after 6 years in office, most political observers agree that he has spent all his political capital on the peace initiative and his ability to steer the government given the new circumstances is clearly undermined. The result is that the presidential campaign for 2018 has in effect already started, far earlier than planned, and will likely be shaped by this vote and the peace agenda.
Adding to the dissatisfaction amongst the citizenry, the Colombian economy has taken a severe blow from the decline in oil prices. As a result, a loss of 24 percent of national income together with a 40 percent peso devaluation has generated a fiscal deficit that is forcing the Government to present – as soon as mid-October – a tax reform that is a necessary condition for Colombia to maintain its investment grade, and trust from rating agencies and the international financial community. Further complicating the picture, any tax reform will likely make all Colombian constituents, from middle-class workers to large corporations, unhappy and will thereby negatively impact President Santos’ popularity even further.
Even though the October 2nd vote might prove to be an unexpected challenge for the Santos administration and a political setback to his peace efforts, it is undeniable that security conditions have dramatically improved over the past two years. Colombia’s economic and democratic steadiness has proven to be a bright spot in an unstable region, which has, in turn, led to a dramatic increase in foreign capital moving into the market.
The economy will be a key driver for the country’s goal of long-lasting peace, given the impact that inbound investments can continue to have on stability. For example, Colombia export promoter ProColombia reported 59 foreign funded projects in the first half of 2016, totaling $2.3 billion. The country is also set to become a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development in the next six months, which many view as a critical step in further raising inbound investments. All of this will contribute strong incentives to pursue peace and maintain favorable conditions for foreign business and investments.
While the half of the Colombian population that voted “Yes” is not celebrating the plebiscite result, there is for now a general consensus among this group, and all parties, that despite the shock of the result, not everything in the peace effort is lost.