Colombian Voters Reject Peace, Civil War on Hold

After fifty years and 200,000 deaths, one would think a peace deal between the government and rebels of any country would be supported by a vast majority of people. That would be the case except in Colombia. There, the government agreed to peace terms with the Marxist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. The people were to have ratified it by plebiscite. Instead, the voters rejected the deal with a 50.2% vote against and 49.8% for it. The margin was roughly 60,000 votes. Turnout was just 37.4%. However, the deal is undone, and the question is what next?

The government and FARC have agreed to extend the ceasefire currently in place through October 31, and they have made clear that can be extended. That is important, but it is hardly a solution. The government of Juan Manuel Santos made it clear during the campaign on the referendum that there was no Plan B. Colombia is now looking for one.

FARC’s leaders can probably hold the rank-and-file in line for a couple of months at most. Then, they will likely return to the jungle, to using their weapons and carrying on the struggle. The Santos government has no political capital left to spend. Mr. Santos’ approval rating is around 38%. Alvaro Uribe, who led the campaign against the deal, has a 59% approval rating among polled Colombians. Clearly, he holds the keys to the kingdom of peace.

Mr. Uribe complained that the peace agreement was “weak.” He wants it corrected in several ways including:


  • That those found guilty of crimes be barred from running for public office
  • That FARC leaders serve time in prison for crimes committed
  • That FARC use its illicit gains to pay its victims compensation
  • That no changes be made to the Colombian constitution


Some reports stated that Mr. Uribe also wants changes to government policy and a more conservative approach to family affairs.

Mr. Santos does have another card to play, but it is risky. He could appoint Mr. Uribe minister plenipotentiary and send him to Havana to deal with FARC’s negotiators. At the same time, Mr. Santos should announce an end to the ceasefire on October 31 if there is no deal. Any agreement Mr. Uribe gets will bear his name, and he will have to deliver the votes in the referendum that will follow. If there is no deal with Mr. Uribe, Mr. Santos still has the option of going back to the nation to ratify the first agreement in a “do-over” referendum. Turnout of 37.4% hardly gives either side a mandate, and failed negotiations could be enough to set aside the first referendum.

However, there is an underlying problem, and that is a significant portion of Colombian society is not yet tired enough of war to vote for peace. Half of 37.4% is 16.7%, just over one in six of Colombians, rejected the peace deal. On higher turn out, theirs could be a minority share of the vote, and the treaty could be ratified. Yet, they must somehow be convince that whatever agreement finally comes before the voters again is sufficient. Otherwise, they will be in a position to sabotage the settlement.

After 52 years of war, it is difficult to believe that it is in Colombia’s best interests to pursue any path other than peace. That may mean some perceived injustices go unaddressed. Justice for 200,000 dead probably ought not to cost another 1,000 their lives. The future is for the living, and Colombia risks staying in the past.