The final pieces of the landmark peace deal between Colombia and the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rest on precarious ground. Legislation needed to enact vital portions of the agreement has been stuck in the Colombian Congress since the government and FARC agreed on terms in 2016 after four years of negotiations. Congress' special fast-track authority for laws underpinning the peace deal ends Nov. 30, meaning bills related to the deal that pass through the legislative body after that date would take longer to approve. Once the deadline passes, the odds of finalizing the deal this year decrease, especially as the legislative coalition that backed the deal continues to disintegrate and national elections take center stage.
The next year could determine whether Colombian authorities have the political will or even the ability to fully implement the peace deal. The agreement was ushered in with the support of a president and legislative coalition friendly to it. However, the next Congress, which will be elected in March of next year, and the new president, who will come to power in August, may prove to be more hostile to the deal and oppose the steps needed to fully implement it.
A Tussle Over Amnesty Courts
One key law still needed to keep the peace deal on track involves setting up amnesty courts for FARC leaders. Popular opposition to the deal in some areas of the country has contributed to delays, as lawmakers have avoided casting votes on the measures for fear of losing electoral support. Those political headwinds could also discourage lawmakers from extending the fast-track authorization period, since some legislators who represent areas where the deal is unpopular may be unwilling to vote for an extension. If Congress misses the Nov. 30 deadline, then the peace deal will probably remain in limbo well into the next year.
The risk that the deal will fully fall apart is still remote, but it would become more probable next year if FARC has to renegotiate sensitive aspects of it, like amnesty, to satisfy legislators or a new president. Ending the agreement wouldn't be FARC's first choice, but the question of returning to insurgency will almost certainly come up if the deal hits snags. If FARC renews its insurgency in the next few years, it would be much weaker than it was before its cease-fire with the government was implemented in 2015. After all, over the past two years, some low-ranking FARC militants and midlevel commanders across the country have split off to form their own criminal groups or join others and no longer respond to the high command's orders. But even a reduced FARC insurgency would likely keep attacking foreign interests, such as oil pipelines, and conducting kidnappings for ransom.
Three Factors to Watch in 2018
Three factors will threaten the future of Colombia's peace agreement in 2018. The ruling coalition is falling apart, which may end up making it even harder for Colombia's Congress to pass remaining legislation before the end of November. Second, an effort to hold a referendum opposing a key part of the peace deal risks forcing FARC to choose between dragging the deal out or returning to insurgency. Third, a president hostile to the peace deal could be elected next year. Such an administration would likely press for changes to a deal wherever possible — an agenda that would risk the peace process if the current congressional period ends without final approval for key aspects of the deal.
As his time in office nears an end, two-term President Juan Manuel Santos' coalition is weakening. The coalition, which once included members of centrist and left-leaning parties such as the Liberal Party, Radical Change and the Green Party, as well as Santos' Social Party of National Unity, has steadily shrunk over the past two years. In Congress, that disintegration has often left the president without enough votes to have a quorum to discuss new legislation supporting the peace agreement. This trend is simply a byproduct of domestic politics.
After two terms of relative unity, key officials from Santos' coalition such as former Vice President German Vargas Lleras are more willing to run against Santos' party in 2018 than they are to suppress their own presidential ambitions. Therefore, Radical Change plans to run Vargas Lleras as its candidate for the presidency in 2018, after declining to put forward a candidate during the last presidential election in 2014 in deference to Santos. The steady erosion of Colombia's presidential coalition means that lawmakers affiliated with Radical Change have shifted their positions to oppose the peace agreement legislation in Congress. And Vargas Lleras, a former Santos ally, is now running on a relatively conservative political platform and is publicly challenging the peace agreement, probably because voters in Colombia's larger cities — where most of his support is likely be centered — are staunchly against a peace agreement.
Legislators running for seats in constituencies where most voters oppose the peace agreement have been reluctant to show up for votes on the deal's more controversial aspects, such as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which is the mechanism used to create amnesty courts. As a result of its newfound opposition to the peace agreement, Radical Change has demanded changes to this part of the legislation, which has contributed to delays in its final approval. Twenty-seven senators have also recused themselves from voting on the special jurisdictions, meaning that the issue could remain unresolved before next year. If that is the case, a political shift in Congress could weaken the chances that it would pass.
But even if lawmakers in vulnerable seats win re-election, a proposal to hold a referendum opposing the peace deal may gain momentum in 2018, threatening the deal anyway. The Democratic Center party, led by former president Alvaro Uribe, is collecting signatures for a referendum to repeal the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. If the party obtains 1.8 million signatures by April, it will be able to request a national referendum on the issue. And Colombia's law makes it relatively easy in this case for a referendum to repeal those jurisdictions. For the vote to be valid, only 25 percent of registered voters must participate, and the measure would pass if approved by a simple majority. Before leaving office, the Santos administration could hobble or outright halt the referendum movement if a federal court rules against it, but it's unclear whether a court could find a fault with its execution before the six-month window to collect signatures expires. If it collects enough signatures, the Democratic Center would likely ask for permission to hold the vote, which could occur before the end of 2018.
The third risk to the deal would come if a candidate hostile to it is elected president. Right now, that likely would occur only if a candidate from the Democratic Center, who has yet to nominate a candidate, came to power. Vargas Lleras has campaigned against the peace deal, but his opposition appears to be rooted more in political opportunity than any longstanding opposition to the FARC negotiation. If a Democratic Center candidate came to power and Congress had not yet finalized the deal, the new president would likely pressure legislators to suspend voting or would try to find judicial avenues to challenge the agreement.
Colombia's FARC deal will be on shaky ground if the referendum against it proceeds. However, in the absence of a referendum (or a hostile presidential administration), Colombia's Congress will have more leeway to approve any remaining legislation. The best-case scenario for the Santos government would come if Congress approves the final laws needed to enact the peace deal before the fast-track expiration on Nov. 30. If not, proponents of the deal will have to hope that things go their way next year, with the referendum drive meeting obstacles and the presidential election ushering in a candidate amenable to the peace agreement.