BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the nation’s people will have the ultimate say in his government’s peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) with a simple “yes or no” plebiscite.
The peace talks in question between the FARC, Latin America’s oldest insurgency group, and the Colombian government, started in October of 2012 initially in Oslo, Norway and then in Havana, Cuba with the hopes of ending a conflict that has lasted over half a century.
In reaction to a ultraviolent crackdown on peasant organizations, the FARC militarized in 1964. As the primary guerrilla force, the FARC rebels have been engaged in war with the Colombian government since then, a war that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced several million more.
So far, an agreement on land reform has been achieved during the peace talks, along with the group’s future political participation and the topic of the illicit drug trade.
The last point that was agreed upon, which was transitional justice, carried with it the sub-point of suspect and victim recognition and reparation, the most sensitive subject given that it concerned all those affected by the conflict. As such, it was also the longest point as negotiation about the victims lasted 18 months.
In late September, Santos and the FARC’s top leader, Timoleón Jiménez “Timochenko” (whose real name is Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri) announced in Havana that a definitive peace agreement should be signed between the long-warring factions in March of 2016, six months from the date the two men met and came to the agreement in the Cuban capital.
Shortly after, another positive development took place as Santos accepted the FARC’s proposal for a bilateral ceasefire that could become definitive as early as January.
“The hour of peace has arrived in Colombia. 2016 will be the year that Colombia sees a new dawn, a country without war that can finally move toward its maximum potential,” Santos concluded shortly after the agreement on transitional justice was reached.
Before that definitive agreement can be signed, however, it has been agreed upon that the Constitutional Court of Colombia will draw up a plebiscite.
In Colombia, Article 7 of Law 134 of 1994 outlines that a plebiscite, or a public vote, is the voice of the nation’s people that approves or rejects a decision made by the Executive.
In this case, Colombians will respond with either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the text that will be eventually composed and overseen by said Constitutional Court.
The full text of the agreement will be made available to the public and it will be explained to the people through a mass media campaign that will last at least a month, including in the printed press, national radio and television outlets (public and private), web pages, social networks and a rural outreach campaign.
“We hope that at some point during the first half of 2016 that Colombians, after the review by the court and any possible revisions, will be able to go to the polls and cast their vote with full knowledge of the agreement and its content,” said Juan Fernando Cristo, Santos’ Interior Minister said.
According to Colombian law, the plebiscite would only need to receive more than 13 percent of the electorate’s votes, which is 4,396,625 votes at the time of the announcement. If the ‘no’ votes outnumber the ‘yes’ votes, or if the ‘yes’ votes simply do not add up to the aforementioned number, the agreement will be negated.
According to the rules set forth by Congress, which easily approved the holding of a future plebiscite, the State will not be able to divert any funds toward campaign finances. Likewise, no politician or statesman will be able to use public money to campaign either for or against the implementation of the peace agreement.
While no public funds can be used in swaying people to vote ‘yes,’ ‘no’ or to abstain, political parties, movements and social and civic organizations can make their opinions on the topic clearly and officially known if they register their campaigns with the National Electoral Council, which will also place monetary limits on those campaigns in the interest of fairness and transparency.
As such, Santos has hit the ground running. “If the ‘no’ vote wins, we will abide by such a vote and the war will continue raging and destroying our country for the next twenty or thirty years,” he said.
On the other side of the debate is Álvaro Uribe, the two-term leader (2002-2010) that preceded Santos when the latter assumed the presidency. Uribe has been the most outspoken opponent of the peace talks and by using baseless evidence, hearsay and his own theories, he has sought to undermine the talks and has continued with the same rhetoric since returning to politics as a Senator with his right-wing Democratic Center party in July of 2014.
Prior to forming the Democratic Center in 2013, Uribe belonged to the Social Party of National Unity (La U), a party founded in 2005 by a group of right-leaning dissidents (led by Uribe) of the centrist Colombian Liberal Party and to which Santos still belongs.
Santos, Uribe’s understudy and Defense Minister, then succeeded Uribe as President but after a clash over ideology, Uribe has repeatedly critiqued Santos and formed the said Democratic Center which has become the biggest opposition party in the Senate.
Thus, Uribe, a man with links to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups and sectors of the Armed Forces, and his party wield a great deal of public influence and have made their feelings on the plebiscite known.
“It is a joke that in a nation of 48 million people, you only need to gather some 4.4 million votes in order for the peace agreement to pass,” Uribe said, ignoring the fact that it will fail if more ‘no’ votes are produced. In light of this and the Democratic Center’s presence, Uribe said that he will likely urge followers to abstain from voting.
Despite Uribe’s opposition to the peace talks, the de-escalation of the conflict has only brought positive developments in the conflict. In a report released last week, the Resource Center for Conflict Analysis (CERAC) explained that in the July 20-to-December 20 period, the violence levels fell to their lowest point ever observed since the beginning of the conflict.