The weekend referendum on the Colombian peace process had been considered a sure thing by pollsters who appear to have, Brexit-style, deeply misjudged the mood of Colombia’s voting public. Colombians voted—by less than 60,000 votes out of 13 million cast—to reject peace accords that had been hammered out in Havana over years of negotiation between Colombian government officials and representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Those negotiations appeared on the verge of ending more than half a century of conflict in Colombia that has produced economic and political disorder and led to the displacement of millions of Colombians.
Polls running up to the vote predicted that the accord would be approved two-to-one on Sunday. Instead the peace deal with FARC lost by a razor-thin 49.8 percent to 50.2 percent. That disconnect between pollsters and voters is now the subject of much soul-searching in Colombia.
Hurricane Matthew appears to have played a role in discouraging voters in northern Colombia. A low turnout had been anticipated at around the 40 percent level seen in recent congressional elections. But in several states along the Caribbean coast that favored the accord by large margins voter turnout was as low as 25 percent due to heavy rainfall caused by the storm. Nationwide nearly 64 percent of voters stayed home. In regions where the fighting and suffering has been the most intense, however, the voters said “yes” to the accord by overwhelming margins.
The Washington Office on Latin America argued in a statement released today that results of the referendum “were not a vote against peace”:
Most Colombians want peace in their country. The No vote relates more to the incentives given to the FARC guerrillas to lay down their arms. The referendum’s outcome also shows that a clear division exists between areas hard hit by conflict and areas that have been traditionally removed from war.
The majority in the periphery of the country and [the department of Cundinamarca] voted for the peace deal. Municipalities where atrocious abuses took place at the hands of the guerrillas like Bojaya and Tumaco voted for ending the conflict. The economic and political elites who are not impacted by the conflict and fear losing their economic advantages voted No.
Virginia Bouvier, senior advisor for peace processes at the U.S. Institute of Peace, has been following the Colombia’s peace negotiations since they started more than four years ago. She blames the outcome of the referendum on pervasive “disinformation” peddled on social media and the complexity of the agreement, which voters had only a month to evaluate.
“The ‘yes’ vote had a much harder sell,” she explained in a statement released to the press today. “The accord was 297 pages and few had read it … The agreement on justice was particularly complex; there was confusion about amnesties and pardons and concern that the FARC would not be adequately punished for their crimes.”
The Washington Office on Latin America laid the blame for the widespread disinformation about the accords squarely on the shoulders of former president Álvaro Uribe. The human rights advocates accused him of “fear mongering” that “played into the hatred that a portion of Colombian society feels for the FARC, arguing that Colombia would falsely turn into a Cuba-Venezuela like state.”
“It’s a shame that ex-President Alvaro Uribe did not accept either President [Juan Manuel] Santos’s or [FARC leader] Timochenko’s invitations to dialogue before the plebiscite,” Bouvier said. “It might have saved everyone a lot of anguish.”
Despite the no vote, Bouvier believes the damage to the peace process in Colombia is not fatal. “The results reflect a country united in seeking peace, but deeply divided over how to do so,” she said. “Both sides are accepting the results as legitimate and discussing ways to move the country toward peace. The plebiscite results appear unlikely, in the short term at least, to reverse the march toward a political solution.”
According to Bouvier, Santos has announced that the bilateral ceasefire will be maintained, and that he will convene political and social sectors from both campaigns tomorrow to discuss ways forward. FARC commander in chief Timochenko (the nom de guerre of Rodrigo Londoño) has indicated words will remain his force’s only weapons in the aftermath of the vote. Bouvier reports that negotiators will be back at the peace tables in Havana tomorrow to establish a process for moving forward.
“The message that came out loud and clear [from the referendum failure] is that there is a sector of Colombian society that is unwilling to grant the FARC amnesty or to see them in political office,” officials at the Washington Office on Latin America said. “Whether it is due to hatred, self-interest, or misinformation, these are Colombians who need to be brought on board for a true peace to take hold.”