Take it or leave it: what went “wrong” with the referendum in Colombia?

Democracy can be exercised in different ways depending on its characteristics. Hobson (2012) presents various forms of democracy, where liberal democracy for long has been the prominent model. In a very simplified manner, the essence of a liberal democracy is characterised by citizens electing their representatives. Hence, it is a “one person – one vote” system, where politicians and delegates then represent the citizens in decision-making (Hobson, 2012:442-443). Additionally, “deliberative democracy” is the recent trend in democratic development which is more ‘talk-centric’, meaning that the citizens’ different views are important and taken under consideration. Elections are still held on a regular basis, but the concept of deliberation is at the core, meaning less reliance on the institutional elements of democracy, making it more flexible in its practice (Hobson, 2012:449; Fishkin, 2011:32).

Colombia: democracy through a pact

Democracy to Karl (1990:2) is defined by fair elections held on a regular basis, guarantees for political freedom and limited military prerogatives. It is a definition close to the liberal version of democracy, but wider in the aspect of the role of the military, making it suitable for Colombia. Moreover, the type of democracy in a country can be defined by the mode of transition: how it was created. A country transforming though a revolution usually becomes a democracy where one political party is dominant (such as Mexico). Yet a country transforming through a pact implies that elite groups of the society define the rules of governance, usually evolving to a corporatist democracy. This is, according to Karl (1990:15), the case of Colombia which transformed into a democracy in 1958. The year before, Colombians voted for a coalition between liberals and conservatives and in that way excluding other political parties (The Economist, 2016). Hence, it was an elite-domination through compromises, which defined the way to democracy in the country, where it was not necessary to apply force in the transition. So, the multi-party system resulting from this becomes collusive, that is, not necessarily transparent to everyone, even though there were public elections (Karl, 1990:15). This created ground for the formation of the FARC’s armed opposition in 1964.

Karl’s argumentation for different forms of democracy also opens up for defining the level of democracy. According to Freedom House (2015) Colombia is ranked as “partly free”, scoring 3.5 out of 7.0. On political rights Colombia scores 3.0 and for civil liberties 4.0, out of 7.0. Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution and opposition views are often expressed in the media. Internet is not restricted. Nevertheless, self-censorship, slander and defamation are common, and dozens of journalists have been murdered since the   mid-1990s. Regarding associational and organizational rights Colombia only score 5 out of 12, since the freedom of assembly and association are restricted (Freedom House,2016). All this implies that, although being a (partly) democratic country, Colombia still has work to do.

Deliberative democracy and Fishkin’s Trilemma

According to Fishkin (2011:32, 43) there are three key values for a deliberative democracy: political equality, political participation and deliberation:

Political equality: Fishkin argues that the most common way to look at political equality is that all people have equal voting power. Moreover, each citizen should have an equal likelihood of supporting each alternative (for instance yes/no in a referendum) and there should be an effective political competition between the alternatives (ibid.).

Political participation: This includes active actions such as voting in a referendum/election, writing letter to politicians, signing petitions or demonstrate; as well as passive actions, for instance to watch the news and read newspapers. This is a cornerstone of democracy which helps to create “mass consent” of a decision. For instance, if people vote “Yes” for an agreement in a referendum, it means that the government has mandate to carry it out (Fishkin, 2011).

Deliberation: is “the process by which individuals sincerely weigh the merits of competing arguments in discussions together” (Fishkin, 2011:34). Fishkin’s framework looks at five conditions understanding to what extent deliberation is reached, which could be helpful to understand the amount of deliberation in Colombia’s referendum on the Peace Agreement.

Fishkin’s conceptual framework of deliberation

  1. Information

Do the participants have access to sufficient, relevant and accurate information regarding the issue at stake? Here, the media, the government and the civil society play a key role in providing necessary knowledge and information, but also the citizen him/herself has a responsibility to search for information.

  1. Substantive balance/“weighting”

Deliberation contains weighting of competing sides of an issue. Are the arguments from one side answered with consideration of other perspectives/views? Further, an important aspect to consider is the personality of, for instance, the leader who may influence a certain side.

  1. Diversity of viewpoints

Are there assigned seats in the government or invitations to the negotiation for citizens with different viewpoints to represent major positions in the discussions? Is ascriptive participation carried out, where gender, race or geographical location would be represented by people outside of these categories?

  1. Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness means to what extent participants in the discussions succeed to weigh different viewpoints/merits in the discussions. Here, social pressure could be an important factor of influence, hence, the “force of the better arguments”.

  1. Equal consideration

Are all arguments equally considered regardless of social class, race or status of the participant/citizen offering it?

(Fishkin, 2011:34-42).

Deliberation and its challenges

Deliberation is seen as an “inclusive” democratic value. However, some scholars argue that deliberation advances the people in power. The elite might benefit from social inequalities in the deliberation process, hence, trying to uphold inequalities (Fishkin, 2011). Karl (1990:10-11) describes a similar result from pact-democracy. The advantage of a pact is due to the contemporary period where the integration to the international market, mass politics and military skills create more actors with the possibility to influence politics. This makes pacts a safe and strategic way to cooperate (for the elites) as, while giving up some of their own influence/capacity (in the pact), they still maintain a considerable level of influence and favour their own interests (Karl, 1990:10-11). When Colombia transformed into a democracy in 1958, the coalition excluded other political actors than the liberals and conservatives from power. Karl (1990:15) would argue that this is a result from a democracy through a pact. Even though there is a multi-party system it becomes collusive, hence, does not give much room for deliberation.

Furthermore, Fishkin highlights the difficulty to take all key democratic values into consideration since there is generally a conflict between the three – something he refers to as a “trilemma”, specifically a dilemma with three corners. If a state succeeds to achieve two of the values, one value may not be possible to incorporate (Fishkin, 2011:32, 46-7). Hence, there is a trade-off between the values. Additionally, Fishkin (2011:47) claims that “referenda deliver participation and political equality but routinely fail to offer deliberation at the same time”. The importance of this statement will be discussed in the analysis.

The Peace Agreement 

The armed conflict started in 1964 and has resulted in 260,000 deaths, 45,000 disappeared and nearly seven million displaced people (AFP, 2016). Several attempts to negotiate peace have been made in Colombia, where the latest one fell apart in 2002. When Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, was elected in 2010 he vowed to create peace with the guerrillas (WOLA,  2016). After four years of negotiations, this finally led to the signing of an agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC on the 26th September. To get full legitimacy from the public, Santos promised a referendum in which the Colombians could vote “Yes” or “No” to the final peace-deal (WOLA, 2016). Roughly 37 percent of the population entitled to vote participated in the referendum, where the “No”-side won with barely 0.4 percentage points. Even with the low turnout there were significant regional differences between the two sides. In rural areas, where the population had been most directly affected by the conflict, the largest support for the agreement could also be found (BBC, 2016b).

The final agreement between the government and FARC included, among other things, the reintegration of ex-combatants (guerrillas) into society. FARC opted for an amnesty law for political crimes that was passed, meaning that many ex-combatants would go unpunished (WOLA, 2016). Furthermore, crimes against humanity would not necessarily lead to prison, but community service work. The FARC promised to end all its connections to the drug trade (BBC, 2016b) and a disarmament program was planned to be monitored by the United Nations through the Security Council Resolution 2261 (UN News Service Section, 2016). By converting into a political party, FARC would be assigned ten seats in parliament during an interim period (BBC, 2016b). By some, it has been a compromise to reach peace, and Santos even received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work (Nobelprize, 2016), but for others regarded as something unacceptable (Brodzinsky, 2016; Casey, 2016).

Why did Colombia vote “No”?

Rupturing the past

In a transition period, Karl (1990:8) defines several steps for establishing “new rules, roles, and behavioural patterns which may or may not represent an important rupture with the past”. An initial parameter to set out is the civilian and military/armed group spheres, which is done by reaching an agreement/accord between political parties and armed forces. The peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC was that necessary step.

The capital Bogotá and the North have been less affected by the conflict than the West, East and South parts of Colombia. Comparing the affected regions and the result of the referendum, one can realize that the regions most affected by the conflict were generally in support of the Agreement. These resource-rich regions have constantly been contested by several armed groups from all sides. Therefore, many indigenous groups, the majority living in rural areas, have been targeted by various sides in the conflict (Freedom House, 2015). The necessity of a “Yes” to the Agreement could be understood from the effects of the long conflict, where there are entire generations that know nothing else than violence and insecurity. This could also be the reason behind finding the major support in rural areas, where the people want to be able to lead safe and peaceful lives (Brodzinsky, 2016).

Applying Fishkin’s Framework to the Referendum

As already mentioned, information was to some extent accessible to the public. However, self- censorship and a restricted civil society resulted in limited access to information (Freedom House, 2015). How well the citizens tried to access relevant information themselves, would be hard to measure and out of the scope of this paper.

The Colombian Media could show opposition views, thus there were some levels of substantive balance. However, there were reports of illegal surveillance of journalists in the period leading up to the referendum (Freedom House, 2015), hindering them in their profession and the freedom of speech. Furthermore, strong political leaders in opposition of each other created a strong division between the two competing sides. The former president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, who has been one of the leading figures in opposition to the Agreement, claimed that it was too lenient on the guerrilla, giving them many benefits and not making them pay for their crimes (BBC, 2016a). The months leading up to the signing of the Agreement showed a major support of the “Yes”-side. However, shortly before the referendum, polls showed a shift and the “No”-side gained supporters. President Santos declining popularity may have weighted negatively on the support for the “Yes”-side. This could be seen as a “downside” of democracy, where the “No”-vote also became a vote against the current president (Casey, 2016).

Furthermore, this also impacted on the conscientiousness, hence the “force of the better argument”, creating a feeling that the victims were not compensated enough. In contrast to this argument, many of the victims voted “Yes”, wishing for an end of the armed conflict (International Crisis Group, 2016).

Asking Cornwall’s (2008) important question at what stages people could participate, it may be important to note that throughout most of the four-year peace-process, the victims were not physically represented at the negotiation table. It was first towards the end that victims could share their views in Havana, thus, participating in the end-stage. Therefore, one could argue that the diversity of viewpoints was not fully realised.

To sum up, the result approved the trade-off between deliberation, political participation and political equality, where in a referendum, deliberation is frequently overlooked. The Colombian referendum did fulfill political equality to a certain level, since every citizen had one vote and there was political competition between the two sides. The low voter turn-out (37%) indicates a lower political participation, since 63% did not make it to the ballots. Nevertheless, there had been demonstrations carried out by the people, pointing to their active actions. As argued above, the Colombian Peace Agreement had benefited from more deliberation including the people to a larger extent.


The decision to legitimise the Peace Agreement through a referendum could be seen as the democratically right decision. However, the peace-result the president Santos (and the international community) expected was not reached. By voting “No” (by a small margin), the Colombian people illegitimated the Agreement leaving the Government, the FARC, the UN and other actors involved in the negotiations clueless of what would follow.

New negotiations are already underway (DN, 2016). Applying Fishkin’s Framework of deliberation to the case of the Colombian referendum, this analysis has recognised several limitations in the process of including the population. This might have resulted in the unexpected result in the referendum, and Colombia may need to include more deliberation mechanisms if a new peace deal is to be agreed upon and legitimised by the people.

By Burag Gurden