Aug 11, 2016 | 09:18 GMT

5 mins read

Colombia's Peace Talks Hit a Snag

Without public support for the peace deal struck between the FARC and the Colombian government, a definitive resolution to their decadeslong conflict may remain elusive.
(LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past few months, the Colombian government's peace talks with the country's largest insurgency have given many people cause for optimism. In addition to reaching a cease-fire deal with Bogota, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has already begun preparing to demobilize in parts of the country. One issue that has yet to be resolved, however, could hold up further progress toward peace: the lack of popular support for it. Unless the government can get its people on board with the FARC agreement, or find a way to ratify it without the public's buy-in, a conclusive end to Colombia's decadeslong conflict may remain just out of reach.

Roughly 50 percent of Colombian respondents plan to vote against ratifying Bogota's peace agreement with the FARC, according to an Aug. 8 Ipsos poll. Only 39 percent said they would vote in favor of the deal, while the rest were undecided. The results are concerning for the Colombian government, which is still trying to determine how an eventual accord would be ratified, should it be reached. If Bogota decides that submitting the deal to a national vote that it could very well lose would pose too big a risk to the peace process, it will have to find an alternative way of ratifying the agreement. 

For the FARC, however, time is of the essence. If a deal has not been signed and ratified by the time Colombia elects its new president in mid-2018, the future of the peace process will be anything but certain.

By law, President Juan Manuel Santos cannot run for a third term in office, and his National Unity coalition will likely break apart so that Cambio Radical and the Liberal Party can field their own presidential candidates. There is therefore a real chance that a more conservative government, led by Centro Democratico, will assume power after the next election, a possibility that has added to the sense of urgency surrounding the current talks.

Routes to Ratification

Given the sweeping and transformational nature of the deal in the making, it will likely have to be approved by a popular vote of some kind. After all, the peace agreement could involve awarding seats in the Colombian Senate and Chamber of Representatives to FARC members and granting complete amnesty to a sizable segment of the insurgency. Without the public's backing, such an accord would lack political legitimacy, potentially making it more vulnerable to legal challenges or overturn down the road. To guard against these outcomes, the government and the FARC have three options for ratification: a referendum, a plebiscite or a constitutional assembly.

Over the past year, Bogota has leaned toward the plebiscite option, primarily because a congressional agreement in November 2015 stipulated that a plebiscite would require the approval of only 13 percent of voters (less than 4.5 million votes) to succeed. The FARC, however, prefers the constitutional assembly. From its point of view, sealing the peace deal into the Colombian Constitution would make it much more difficult to repeal later on. For now, the government seems to have won the debate: In July, the Colombian Constitutional Court approved Bogota's request to hold a plebiscite in late 2016, though it has not yet issued the final ruling needed to organize the vote. Colombian Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo has even said the vote could be held as early as September.

A Tough Call

Over the next few months, the FARC and the government will have to decide whether to commit to the plebiscite or find another means of ending the conflict. The plebiscite has its risks; it would give the Centro Democratico opposition a chance to campaign against the peace deal ahead of the vote. Then again, the other two options would require a higher level of support to pass. Moreover, a constitutional assembly could create significant delays as representatives are elected and topics of reform are selected.

The possibility of a close vote in the plebiscite also raises the question of whether Bogota and the FARC will be forced to water down their agreement to make it more palatable to the public. Losing the vote would leave the peace deal in uncharted territory, and though Bogota has other mechanisms it could turn to, the prospect of such uncertainty will shape how the government and the FARC proceed. The insurgency's demands for political concessions, including 10 seats in the legislature's upper house and representation in the lower house for all of the departments in which the group operates, may have to be trimmed back. Both sides have come too far to abandon the peace talks, which means the FARC might simply have to adjust its expectations of how good a bargain it can get from the Colombian government.

The coming months, therefore, will be crucial in determining what kind of peace — if any — will materialize in Colombia. The FARC and the government are closer than ever to striking a deal, but if the public continues to oppose it, the process of ending Colombia's longest-running insurgency will become even more complicated.

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