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Why the Colombia peace agreement failed, and what we can expect now

- October 4, 2016
A woman reacts after learning about the rejection of a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) following a plebiscite in Bogota, Colombia, on Sunday. (Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg)

On Sunday, Oct. 2, Colombian voters unexpectedly rejected the peace agreement between the government and the FARC. Polls just before the vote showed the accord likely to succeed.  Instead, it failed by an incredibly thin margin. Thirteen million voters turned out to the polls, and 50.2 percent rejected the agreement.

The government held the vote for the same reason voters rejected the agreement. Although peace is popular, several measures in the peace accord are controversial. Without the legitimization of the referendum, it may have been difficult to implement the peace accord. Given a choice between peace and conflict, Colombian voters have rejected peace. Does this vote mean that peace has failed or that people should never have the chance to vote on such important and polarizing issues?

Is the problem the use of the referendum?

Comparisons are already being drawn between Colombia’s vote and Britain’s referendum on exiting the European Union. Observers conclude that referendums are a dangerous and unpredictable way to make policy. My research indicates that this blanket rejection of direct democracy is too simple.

The best outcome for peace in Colombia may seem like the ratification and implementation of the agreement as it is. But at the same time, pushing ahead with the implementation of an unpopular peace plan is unlikely to build stable peace in the long term. The 2012 Framework Agreement for the Havana negotiations acknowledges that to build peace, there must be widespread support for the process from the Colombian people.

Colombia has a history of failed peace agreements. Sunday’s vote could add the Havana agreement to the list, but that remains to be seen. Colombia may now return to conflict. However, the rejection of the referendum could result in attempts to build a stronger agreement and persuading a larger constituency to support its implementation.

Colombia’s vote cannot be meaningfully compared with referendums held in peace on European Union issues. Referendums held in conflicts to make peace are distinct in their uses, organization and what is at stake. Peacemakers have used referendums with increasing frequency. Sixteen have been planned or held in the past 25 years. The outcomes of these votes are sometimes the consolidation of peace but are also sometimes the freezing of peace, outbreak of violence or a return to open war.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/03/colombia-just-voted-no-on-its-referendum-for-peace-heres-why-and-what-it-means/”]Colombia just voted down its referendum on peace. Here’s why.[/interstitial_link]

The parallels to Northern Ireland

A close comparison for Colombia’s vote is Northern Ireland’s 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreements. The vote was held to enact and legitimize a peace agreement negotiated among the elites. The peace process in Northern Ireland brought paramilitaries into the political process and established power-sharing among former adversaries. Northern Ireland’s peace negotiations and referendum transformed a militarized approach to insurgency into shared governance. Colombia’s vote shared each of these characteristics.

The similarity between Northern Ireland’s referendum and Colombia’s is no coincidence. In 1974, while studying in London, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos witnessed an IRA bombing in Piccadilly Circus. Santos followed the peace process in Northern Ireland with interest. In 2011, Santos reached out to Tony Blair’s former chief of staff for tips on peacemaking. The British later provided a team of advisers to the negotiations.

The parallels to Cyprus

Colombia’s peace agreement and referendum were designed to work like Northern Ireland. Instead it has unfolded more like Cyprus, where in 2004 voters rejected the Annan Plan, put forward by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan. In Cyprus, the United Nations’ negotiators formulated a plan to reunify the divided island and put together a power-sharing government. Ultimately, leaders in the southern half of the island refused to embrace the deal and campaigned for its rejection. Like Colombia’s rejected peace accord, the Annan Plan proved to be an overreach. It failed to secure buy-in from key constituencies, and people opted to maintain a stable status quo of low-level conflict.

The difficulties with Colombia’s peace deal began in its peace negotiations. Peace negotiations that are open to broad participation are the most successful in yielding agreements that work. Although successful in finding compromises that would entice the FARC to disarm and enter politics, the negotiations in Havana took place far from the influence of Colombian society.

This led to a peace agreement that was supported by the unpopular Santos government and the hated FARC, but was opposed by an array of popular politicians, including the two previous presidents, Álvero Uribe and Anrés Pastrana. In Northern Ireland, one extreme-right party dropped out of negotiations and campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement. Its argument against peace in Northern Ireland was similar to Uribe’s: Terrorists need to be defeated not rewarded. The “no” vote in Northern Ireland was similar to that party’s vote share. The referendum undermined a powerful but ultimately marginal opposition.

Opposition in Colombia is not marginal. As in Cyprus, support for the leadership committed to the peace process was undermined during peace talks. In Cyprus, the chief supporter of peace was voted out of office four months before the referendum. In Colombia, Santos was reelected in 2014. Santos defeated his opponent, aligned with Uribe, with 51 percent of the vote. That vote was seen as an endorsement of Santos’s peacemaking efforts. However, Santos has since become deeply unpopular, polling at only 20 percent approval earlier this year. His 2014 mandate failed to win new support for the peace deal.

Santos and his negotiating team stated before the vote that there is no Plan B. Given the all or nothing approach, Colombians’ voted to preserve the status quo. Cypriots were presented with a similar choice. Southern Cyprus was prosperous, stable and open. The predominantly Greek-Cypriot population had little to gain through a peace deal they viewed as compromised and uncertain. In northern Cyprus, where the Annan Plan passed, the Turkish-Cypriot population would gain access to the European Union and international recognition. A choice between an imperfect peace and the continuation of the status quo was quite different.

In Colombia, the vote against the peace accord also split between those who had little to gain from peace and those who are most effected by conflict.  In general, urban centers that have been relatively safe in recent years voted against the plan. The rural periphery most impacted by continued conflict with the FARC voted for peace.

What should we expect going forward?

Santos’s insistence last week that there is no alternative to peace if the referendum failed is already softening. Immediately after the vote, he contacted his negotiating team and requested that they meet with their counterparts in Havana. Both the government and the FARC stated that their cease-fire would continue. Many Colombians rejected the all or nothing approach, saying that a “no” vote did not indicate a preference for conflict but instead a wish for some renegotiation.

In Cyprus, the failure of the Annan Plan ended attempts at peacemaking for a decade. In Northern Ireland, the acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement at the polls did not definitively end paramilitary violence. The peace in Northern Ireland had to be renegotiated several times, and although the government in Belfast was suspended more than once, the conflict in the territory never reverted to militarization and high levels of violence.

The rejection of the referendum in Colombia should not necessarily lead to a rejection of using referendums to make peace. It demonstrates that peacemaking should continue. Peacemakers must do a better job forging an agreement acceptable to both the FARC and Colombians. Santos also needs to build a constituency of supporters by improving the outreach of the process.

In Colombia, the rejection of the referendum will be a failure of peace only if the Cyprus example continues to hold, and the vote ends the peace process. Santos could look again to Northern Ireland, where the commitment to peace had to be sustained long beyond the referendum.

Katy Collin has a PhD in international relations from American University, School of International Service. Her research focuses on the use of referendums in peace processes.