Fabio Andres Diaz Valentina Montoya Robledo

Who would vote against a peace agreement? This might sound like a tricky question, but in fact Colombians went to the polls today and rejected peace agreements reached by the FARC-EP and the Colombian government. The agreements emerged after a process that took more than four years of negotiations, and in spite of the international approval and support, the accord lacked support from its own constituents. Colombia's "no" vote emerges although the agreement followed the highest transitional justice standards, included innovations such as a transversal gender perspectives, the respect and recognition of minorities, and the hope it brought to various sectors of the Colombian society. 

Despite optimism among supporters, backed by polling showing general support for the peace agreement, the illusion of a peaceful country in the near future has come to a standstill. Once again, as in the four previous attempts at reaching peace with the FARC-EP, the future of this process is uncertain. Doubtfulness now informs the prospects for Colombia. In this scenario, Colombians must acknowledge the very real challenges of constructing peace in the country. The question, then, is: what now ?

Supporters of the “No” won the plebiscite with a campaign that evidenced their lack of trust in the current government, as well as the implementation of the agreements between the FARC-EP and the Colombian government. As Senator Alvaro Uribe, the visible head of the opposition to the peace agreement, repeatedly stated, most Colombians are not against peace. Instead, they’re against the specific accords reached in Havana. Their opposition rests on a sense that the accords symbolized impunity for members of the FARC-EP who would allegedly not spend a single day in prison; the unfair economic incentives that meant injustice to the victims, as former guerrillas in the process of demobilization would receive salaries while involved in the process; and the fact that the FARC-EP would gain automatic political representation in the Congress as part of the agreement.

Other voters opposed the accords because of the uncertainty they implied, and the fears that Colombia will suffer the economic misfortunes of Venezuela or Cuba as a result. Many were also concerned for the future of the promises made, so wide that they can constitute a future list of unfulfilled guarantees and grievances that could economically and socially stagnate society and the country as a whole. 

But now what will happen to the current peace agreement? According to the Colombian Constitutional Court, the “plebiscite does not pursue that citizens consider the content and extent to the right to peace, that does not suffer any modification based on popular decision making”. Voters did not vote for or against peace, as many of the voters for “NO” have restated once and again. Rather, they voted against the current agreement. They want peace, they argue, but not under the current standards set forth in the agreement.  

The Colombian Constitutional Court also explained that the plebiscite was not allowing a vote on the constitutional powers that the president has to maintain and pursue public safety through different means, including the negotiation of a peace agreement to end conflict. Thus, President Manuel Santos still holds these Constitutional powers. 

In addition to the Constitutional Court’s decision, there is wider context to take into consideration. Just before the voting took place, the government repeatedly said that if the vote against the agreements won, war would continue. Interestingly enough, FARC-EP leaders like Carlos Lozada at the same time argued that a rejection of the agreement did not mean an end to the peace process.  This suggests that the FARC-EP is still willing to engage in peace talks, and that the process would be subject to future negotiations under different terms. 

At least three possible scenarios arise from the public decision under the current context: First, President Santos and his team could agree on new conditions and include them in the current agreement, or simply create a new one. Santos has the constitutional power to submit a different agreement to the ballot. This means that the “No” vote does not completely close the door to the peace agreement, or even to one under the current Santos regime. The problem here is timing. President Santos has only two more years left and a third reelection is constitutionally prohibited. Agreeing on new terms and submitting the new agreement to another plebiscite could take too long.  

A second outcome could see the government moving forward with the current agreement as it is. It would still act under the constitutional mandate, but without public support. This implies that reforms would be partial, as the government would not have the political capital to enforce all of the points of the agreement. A third scenario involves the FARC-EP continuing to pursue the process in, though seeking another round of talks including new actors such as former President Andres Pastrana and Senator Uribe, as well as members of the ELN guerrilla. These new actors could bring in the required legitimacy from broad sectors of the country missing in this week’s vote. Meanwhile, the state would enjoy a longer timeframe to build the institutions required to fully implement sustainable agreements. This could also imply that the new president will, once again, be defined by the existence of the FARC-EP. 

Many questions remain at this time: What does it mean for the country to allow President Santos to sit again in negotiations with the FARC-EP when he’s largely considered illegitimate in the process? Would it make any difference if the new agreement included different prerogatives? What happens if President Santos finishes his term without signing this agreement and the next new president changes course? What would Colombians feel is a better agreement for the country? The reality is that peace negotiations could fail once again in the future, and this would produce new uncertainties in the prolongation of an armed conflict that is fifty-two years old, and counting. 

There are too many questions to consider in such an ever-changing landscape. The reality is that whether negotiations continue or end up with this democratic decision, Colombia has lost the chance to start working on a serious path towards peace. Opponents of the agreement placed their fears in front of their hopes, and prevented a profound reconstruction of Colombia that needs to take place sooner rather than later.  

Fabio Andres Diaz is a Research Associate at the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa. He is currently editing a volume for Routledge on the challenges of transitional justice for Colombia. Valentina Montoya Robledo is a Doctoral Candidate at Harvard Law School, currently working on topics at the intersection of women´s rights and local government law.