At a crossroads towards peace

Is a referendum always the answer?

The use of referendums as part of a peace process is not the norm, but many states have done so to lend legitimacy to an agreement. For example, it was used to approve Spain’s draft constitution in 1978 marking the transition into democracy at the end of the Francoist era (1939-75) and for finalising the Northern Ireland/Ireland peace process in 1998. It does, however, come with a certain degree of risk, as the stability of an entire nation (or nations) is dependent on people’s visceral and emotional reaction to fraught and often divisive issues. There is also the wider concern of a recurrence of conflict in the case of either a positive or negative result.

President Manuel Santos chose to take this risk by putting the peace deal, which sought to end 60 years of internal armed conflict in Colombia, to a public vote; a decision that sadly did not pay off. On 2 October 2016 the Colombian people unprecedentedly rejected the agreement, as negotiated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that has been 6-years in the making, by the slightest of margins: 50.2% to 49.8%.

The Santos administration expected a positive outcome, and were banking on a surge in optimism following the signing of the peace agreement on 26 September 2016. Yet various opinion polls over the past few weeks indicated that the public (some 34 million registered voters) were split on this issue: a Datexo poll in August shows Yes beating No by a margin of just 1%. Few anticipated that President Manuel Santos’s decision to consult the public on such a key political moment could prove the biggest obstacle to securing peace for the country.

Problems with the Process

A key draw-back to any plebiscite is the inevitable binarising of a complex political issue and the tendency for factual misrepresentation, and in the worse instances fearmongering. This was unfortunately the case in Colombia where former President Alvaro Uribe has been fervently leading the No campaign and pushing for a complete renegotiation with the FARC, in spite of the fact that the majority of the Colombians were – and still are – overwhelmingly in favour of peace. Uribe and his Centro Democrático Party capitalised on the public’s reservations with the terms of the negotiated deal, which included an amnesty for certain FARC leaders and those guilty of “less serious offences”, as well as the unpopularity of President Santos. This does not reflect the reality of compromise that peace deals often have to strike, nor the belief of many that this was the very best deal that could possibly be negotiated.

Another concern is the validity of the process itself, as constitutional referendums are legally binding no matter how many electors go to the polling station. There was a shockingly low turnout in the Colombian referendum – only 37% of registered voters – which meant that less than 54,000 votes determined the outcome. Furthermore, the No win of 50.2%, in actual terms, represents only 19% of the total Colombian population of 48 million. Therefore this outcome – or indeed any outcome – does not reflect the country as a whole, and much more needed to be done to engage the public and catalyse more people into voting to guarantee a fairer result.

Finally, referendums, by their very nature, do not take into account the voices and situations of minorities. Colombia is an interesting example, as although indigenous and afro-Colombian people constitute a significant demographic – almost 13% of the population – they have been disproportionately affected by the 60-year war are often side-lined by mainstream policies. This includes those that have never been registered to vote and geographically remote communities that are unable to access polling stations. The failure by the government to address the deep seated geo-political divisions and marginalisation has meant that a large contingent of indigenous and afro-Colombian people have been disillusioned and disengaged with the peace process and its perceived leniency towards the FARC.

Photo: Colprensa

Photo: Colprensa

The Alternatives

In light of these challenges, was a referendum really the best way to guarantee the end to this conflict?

Clearly the referendum process is complex, fraught, and far from perfect. And yet the alternatives are not very appealing either: a military resolution plunging the country back into civil war, or a political settlement agreed between the government and FARC without a public consent with the potential to cause greater civil unrest if factions disagree or if the agreement breaks down.

What becomes apparent is that there is never going to be a unique solution that circumvents the outlined problems. However strengthening the referendum process itself, by addressing issues such as public engagement, voter turnout and minority representation, could have gone a long way to ensuring the most representative, fair, and hopefully positive result. Here are some option that the Colombian referendum process could have considered:

  1. Public forums and consultations. Whilst the peace negotiations included gender activists, human rights defenders and indigenous groups from across the country, greater engagement could have been had with the lay-person. Discussions across districts would have helped to ensure that the public have a balanced political viewpoint and are able to make their decision based on facts and not hearsay.
  2. Making the deal more appealing. Opinion polls, long before the No vote was cast, showed the negative public feeling towards the reconciliatory rhetoric of the peace deal, and anger that FARC war criminals might evade justice and be granted amnesty. There should have been stronger guarantees of justice to assuage public fears of impunity, which the FARC should have also been a part of. Particular focus should have been given to victims and families of atrocities committed, as well as those on the political right that are more likely to vote No. Former president Uribe should have been given a seat at the negotiating table, as alienating him and his followers from the process has only led to further divisions.
  3. Voter registration and public engagement drives. There are approximately 2 million unregistered voters in Colombia – a significant and potentially decisive group. Drives to target voter apathy, with a focus on the concerns raised by indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups, whilst also getting more people registered to vote, may have secured a greater turnout and made the result more legitimate and publically representative.
  4. Contingency planning. Public assurances should have been issued by the Colombian government and FARC of not reneging on the ceasefire in the event of a No vote. This would help to show both parties commitment to securing peace, but also avert the undoing of 6 years of hard work or, in the worst case scenario, a return to civil war.

The choice to use a referendum in any situation is never easy, but seems all the more precarious when peace is at stake. Nevertheless, having a publically validated peace agreement can be a powerful tool to implement real change and long term stability. Unpicking the Colombian case illustrates that improving electoral and political engagement of the public is key to securing the most fair and positive result, as is ensuring that the victims of the war feel that their voices and reservations are being heard. Whilst it is too late to change the outcome for the Colombian referendum, there are definite lessons that can be learned for the future.

Himali Dave

Himali holds an MSc in Latin American Politics from University College London, where she specialised in the socio-political and economic development of the Andean region, in particular: minority and land rights, social movements and state accountability. Based in the UK, she has worked at various international NGOs and is currently at ChildHope: a child rights INGO that works in partnership with local organisations to support children and young people facing the worst forms of injustice, violence and abuse, in Africa, Asia and South America. Her research interests include the politics of development in “emerging economies”, ethnicity and racism in Latin America and sustainable livelihoods opportunities.
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