Colombia is coming to terms with the political fallout from Sunday's plebiscite, during which voters rejected a peace deal the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had spent the past four years crafting. Now officials in Bogota are left with a tough question: How can the deal be amended to satisfy both the FARC and the Colombian public?
During the negotiations, it became clear that any peace agreement with the FARC would involve significant compromise on the part of the government. The aging leftist militants who lead the FARC had no reason to demobilize if demobilization meant imprisonment or extradition to the United States. They naturally insisted on amnesty for their crimes. The subject of political participation, revolving around the question of whether the rebels' five-decade struggle against the government would result in political gains, was also central to striking the deal. The FARC leadership would not budge on those two points, and the government's concessions proved too difficult for Colombian voters to swallow. (Less than 40 percent of voters showed up to the ballot box, and the deal was struck down by a margin of 50.2 to 49.8 percent, less than 100,000 of the 13 million votes cast.)
The FARC and the government will now have to determine whether it is even possible to negotiate a new deal that meets the demands of all involved — especially when one considers why the original one failed. Most likely, it failed because Colombians thought it was too lenient on the rebels. Under the terms of the deal, FARC members would have been excused from most crimes committed during the course of the insurgency. The issue of political participation for the rebels, who would have received some seats in both houses of the legislature, was another sticking point for voters. In the historically conservative and centrist spectrum of Colombian politics, ideas espoused by the far-left FARC have been relegated to the political fringe, so voters were likely reluctant to allow FARC members to be involved in the legislation. The issue of financial subsidies to FARC members during the demobilization process was likely another point of contention.
At this point, the government faces the difficult task of choosing a new deal that would appeal to the rebels and to the public. However, virtually all options for renegotiation will require approval by some sort of vote, either by Congress or by the public. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos spent a significant amount of political capital on crafting the failed peace deal. There is no guarantee that other political parties in Congress, government institutions or the voters will be willing to try again in the small window of time remaining before a new government takes power. Santos likely will try to bring former president Alvaro Uribe's Democratic Center, the opposition party most opposed to a FARC peace deal, into discussions over its possible renegotiation. In the runup to Sunday's vote, the Democratic Center's anti-FARC rhetoric resonated with a significant segment of the country. Given Colombia's increasingly fragmented domestic political situation, the Democratic Center could come to power in 2018, so bringing that party on board would allow Santos to hedge against any future risk to the agreement. Including the Democratic Center in the discussion on how to proceed brings additional risk, though. Emboldened by the vote's outcome, Uribe and his allies could create a stalemate that would bring down the new negotiations.
But despite the vicissitudes of Colombian domestic politics, the most important drivers of a peace agreement will be the FARC's unity and willingness to negotiate. Prolonging the negotiations toward an uncertain end could drive some FARC leaders — particularly those at the lower levels of command — to break away from the insurgency and continue a life of crime. The possibility of internal fracturing raises the stakes for the FARC, since its cohesiveness in negotiations was key to its gaining concessions from the government. It is plausible that FARC fronts in Colombia's south-central and southwestern regions, where the group produces drugs and mines illegally, could stop obeying the insurgency's leaders. If the FARC leadership loses control of enough of its members, then the state's rationale for continuing negotiations toward a politically costly deal will fade. The disintegration of FARC's authority would almost certainly end the talks — but it also would reduce the threat the group poses to the government as a large, nationally active insurgency.
The next few months will be crucial in determining the fate of any peace agreement. Santos' government still has about a year and a half before congressional and presidential elections are held to negotiate with Uribe's camp and the FARC. It will use this time to attempt to reach a new deal and to make the legal preparations for its approval. But striking a final agreement would rely on balancing the competing interests of both the FARC and the country's electorate. If insurgents' negotiators are willing to budge on the issues of prison time and political participation, then a retooled deal likely would stand a better chance of being approved by voters and surviving into a new presidential administration. Otherwise, Sunday's vote may have marked the end of negotiated peace in Colombia.