Why did Colombia reject the peace deal? Do referendums work?

On Sunday 2nd October 2016, Columbians surprised opinion polls by voting against a peace agreement to end 52 years of war with the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC[1]. Though the deal had been widely expected to pass, it eventually failed. Thirteen million voters turned out to the polls, and 50.2 percent rejected the agreement[2]. Opponents to the deal won by a margin of 0.4% the votes[3]

Under the terms of the agreement, FARC would be afforded nonvoting representatives in Congress through 2018, where they would be able to weigh in on matters related to the implementation of the accords. They were supposed to get a minimum five seats for FARC in the 106-member Colombian Senate and five more in the 166-member lower chamber for two legislative terms through the creation of new voting districts[4]. Critics said it was too soft on guerrilla commanders responsible for war crimes and rewarded them by allowing them to run for public office.

Without no doubt, peace is needed and wanted. Nevertheless, some fragments of prepared deal were controversial. Thus, without the legitimisation of the referendum, it may have been difficult to implement the peace accord. Many Colombians felt that the deal was too indulgent on the rebels, as it would have allowed the majority of fighters to walk away from the war without being punished. The peace agreement would have allowed the remaining 7,000 fighters of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) to reintegrate into the nation’s life and politics. Opponents of the peace deal claim that the most crucial points are still unresolved, including eligibility for public office of those convicted of war crimes. The opposition to the peace protest has been lead by Álvaro Uribe, former president who is backed by his Centro Democrático party[5]

The referendum result brings to to the peak point with the question: Does this vote mean that peace has failed or that people should never have the chance to vote on such important and polarising issues? To sum up this dilemma, we should consider two aspects: Why did Colombia reject the peace deal ? Do referendum work?  

In theory referendum is a wise mean of direct democracy which provide people with real tools to influence political decisions in their state[6]. In fact, we have witnessed recently, some crucial misunderstandings in preparing people to the process (in terms of introducing discussing case to the public opinion). Colombian surprising result echoes the current trend for shock political results around the world which was emphatically depicted during the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom. Colombians decided to back status quo over a chance to change, albeit by a vey narrow majority. Few aspects can be pointed out while analysing this decision and reasons which lead to the final, unexpected score. The reflections have been emphasised by the experts Stratagem International[7]

Above all it has to be said that any referendum is not a type of the elections. Conducting the referendum campaigns as if they were a part of the regular elections which we have to win in order to gain political profit, is simply wrong and prejudicial for the result which is supposed to be positive for the society as a whole not for a particular group. Antagonising « yes » and « no » groups as if they were political opponents, leads to a contest which misses its crucial goal. Furthermore it strengthens populist rhetoric and encourages leaders to use it. In Colombian case the message of « yes » campaigners was also a little bit unclear and little influential if it is compared to strong political message which was behind the whole issue. They were just repeating the need of peace like the reached deal was the only way to bring stabilisation. No campaigners came up with the other idea. Instead of rejecting the deal as a mean to reach peace, they successfully “changed the terms of debate by questioning whether the negotiated peace deal could have been “better”. That made people start to wonder. When the game rules were changed, the message from « yes » supporters which relied mostly on general peace rhetoric –  became blurred[8]. Fear triumphed over hope, emotions trumped reason. 

At some point we can claim that the referendum didn’t concern the peace agreement itself – in people’s perception the raised question was much more complex. Are we happy with the current politics or quite the contrary? Do we support our president and accept the deal which he made?  Even though president Juan Manuel Santos received Nobel Peace Price[9], not everybody in the state shares the enthusiasm of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The president awarded prize for efforts to bring his country’s more than 50-year-long conflict with FARC to an end. Just four days after the people in Colombia in a referendum narrowly rejected a peace. That was a message from divided nation – the experts in Europe may support our political elites but we have every right to be disappointed and ask for more effort. Standing in line for aNobel prize with Timochenko didn’t help either. Why should a guerrilla leader with so much blood on his hands be honoured like that? People felt betrayed. 

It is hard to alway keep politics in rational frames. Emotions can be a way more telling and they motivate more to take actions. Emotional attitude means personal attitude – in that case it is very hard not to follow the crowd who shares it. Voters remember the tragic past and are reluctant to embrace an uncertain, or overly idealistic, future. The government insisted it has secured the best deal possible with the guerrillas, and with the accords now finalised there would be no chance of making revisions. For many voters, a no vote was not a rejection of peace, but a rejection of peace under the given terms. It has been « no » for reasons of ideology as well as self-interest. 

This brings the next aspect of a complicated nature of any referendum. Promoting the complicated, time-consuming change is always harder than saying « that is not enough ». Furthermore, in that case “the change” is not guaranteed. The campaign was conducted during the tough time for the Colombian government. It became less popular due to inter alia economic issues (like tax reform bill)[10]. The regions most affected by conflict voted Yes, but in many Colombian cities (excepting Bogota, Barranquilla and Cali), voters were already experienced a sample of life without violence[11]. There was no need for them to risk change. Especially if we consider what the deal has offered. 

No supporters were able to scatter objections and complaints, with impunity, while the Yes side had to articulate its postulates coherently and consistently with facts, not emotions. Positive emotions towards the deal could not be created when it was all about cooperation with the rebels. People didn’t feel it was a peace for the people. Some of them treated it as a peace for Santos and his political ambitious. No campaign (with the lead of Uribe – Santos’ opponent) was in power to provide cohesive negative repetition. It was fuelled by hatred of the FARC and the unpopularity of the president. Uribe accused the government of negotiating his own imprisonment with the and said that the purpose of the agreements was to abolish private property[12]. “No” side was more united than “Yes” group. The latter one was strongly divided which undermined its main message about the universal peace for all Colombians. That detail has been missed somewhere. 

The fact that the campaign was not presented as a struggle between different understanding of peace and future of Columbia was also fuelled by media. Media reported polarised statements of two political leaders as the Santos vs. Uribe contest[13]. There was not much free space left for discussing the essential side of the agreement. Once it became a kind of popularity contest, some people saw the referendum as a mean to stand against the government and the elites (even though Uribe is surely a part of the elites too). Santos is not personally popular and by putting himself next to the Farc commander-in-chief Timoleón Jiménez – Timochenko at the splendid signing ceremony organised a week before the referendum, he discouraged as many voters as he attracted[14]. His opponents took advantage of this event and once again spread the message that the deal is favourable only in terms of particular interests of some powerful groups, citizens are not included.

Treating the referendum case as a sample of political elections is an interpretation shared by some researchers. “No peace agreement would have been good for them because they are playing politics with it, with a view to the 2018 presidential elections,”said political analyst Alejo Vargas, of the National University[15]. Colombian writer, Juan Gabriel Vásquez is even more straightforward in its opinion. He claims that the outcome was influenced by an opposition leader who will do anything for power. He sees some common points in both Colombian and “Brexit » referendum. The Democratic Center, a right wing, has spent the last years opposing the very possibility that the guerrillas could participate in politics. Nevertheless, it is very unclear what can be their plan B for the future if not the reached deal. This situation he compares to « leave » side in the United Kingdom[16]

On June 23 2016 Britain voted to leave the European Union. The result, with fifty-two per cent of voters in the United Kingdom in favour leaving the E.U also came as a great shock[17]. Despite fact that in the weeks leading up to the vote many opinion polls showed the Leave side with a narrow lead[18]. Common points with Colombian referendum can be found in the media attitude and rhetoric which was used by both sides. The Leave side started to become stronger in the competition after it managed to shift the debate away from the likely economic impact of Brexit and put an emphasis on immigration and issues of national sovereignty. In many working class areas people were showing resentment towards foreigners treating them as a competition in seeking and maintaining a job. As it has been named by Dr Mike Berry “leave campaigners employed a classic KISS (Keep it simple stupid) strategy. They concentrated on a simple message – ‘Take Back Control’ which was repeated at every opportunity. The message was effective because it was both easily understood by different social groups and open to multiple interpretations”[19]. European sceptics were repeating the main role of a nation itself and emphasising that it doesn’t gt enough, it deserves more. Colombians deserve better peace agreement, British people deserve to decide about their state at first, not seeking for a compromise all the time and taking steps back from their needs and postulates. In both cases the critical groups were constantly repeating that the nation’s contribution is a way bigger than the output. The outcome is disproportionate to the effort. Demagogues such as Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, were able to exploit the economic ad cultural (about loosing the identity) worries, directing them against immigrants and other easy targets. One of the most meaningful message in both voting was a call for justice. Enthusiasts (of the EU or the peace agreement) were depicted as the elite living of of the normal people’s reality. The rhetoric of of “No” and “Leave” groups was concentrated on phrases and values which were supposed to refer to the ordinary people and their real problems. Even though the goals were extremely different (in Colombia “No” leaders wanted to keep the stats quo and searching for the other solution in the United Kingdom “Leave” supporters were promoting the wind of change) both fractions had started from the same positions – criticising the government and the situation back them. Their visions were blurred, created somewhen in the future, thus hard to undermine. Despite the fact that the “No” group in Colombia posed against the change – they presented the change as the prolongation of stagnation and as if it was “ceme de la creme” of current president’s failures. In contrast the Remain campaign missed a clear, simple narrative on the benefits of EU membership that could resonate at both a rational and emotional level with different audiences. This lack of one unified message was the major weakness of the “Yes” followers in Colombia. 

Results both in Columbian and British cases showed a a battle between individual understanding of peace and justice. The demand for justice won. According to some Colombians, the deal has been too weak to reach and maintain the real peace. They have been calling for justice and demand punishment for rebels – not a type of gentlemen’s agreement and cooperation « like nothing has happened ». British people may have been concerned about the european reaction for their decision which can surely weaken liaisons with the partners on the continent. Putting the British – national cause in the centre of the dispute, shows perfectly this perception of choosing justice over peace. Observers conclude that referendums are a dangerous and unpredictable way to make policy. In a democratic system, it would appear that the purest way to decide a fundamental issue should be found in a popular vote – common decision of all citizens. Though, the truth is that many issues politicians deal with are too complex to be presented in the simple yes-no format of a plebiscite or referendum. 


By Katarzyna Mierzejewska 


[1] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/colombia-referendum-peace-accord-farc-rejected-161002220514696.html

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/04/why-the-colombia-peace-agreement-failed-and-what-we-can-expect-now/?utm_term=.fe11f4611faa

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/03/why-colombians-voted-against-peace-farc-president-santos-better-deal

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/24/colombia-signs-historic-peace-deal-with-farc-rebels

[5] http://ca.reuters.com/article/topNews/idCAKCN10F024

[6] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/referendum

[7] http://www.newstatesman.com/world/south-america/2016/11/month-what-went-wrong-colombia-referendum

[8] http://www.newstatesman.com/world/south-america/2016/11/month-what-went-wrong-colombia-referendum

[9] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/12/colombia-juan-santos-receives-nobel-peace-prize-161210124801819.html

[10] http://www.businessinsider.com/r-colombia-presents-tax-reform-bill-to-congress-2016-10?IR=T

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/03/colombia-just-voted-no-on-its-referendum-for-peace-heres-why-and-what-it-means/?utm_term=.8e7bf3904ff8

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/10/colombian-referendum-farc-guerrillas-brexit

[13] http://www.newstatesman.com/world/south-america/2016/11/month-what-went-wrong-colombia-referendum

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/03/why-colombians-voted-against-peace-farc-president-santos-better-deal

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/24/colombia-signs-historic-peace-deal-with-farc-rebels

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/10/colombian-referendum-farc-guerrillas-brexit

[17] http://www.bbc.com/news/politics/eu_referendum/results

[18] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/05/how-remain-failed-inside-story-doomed-campaign

[19] https://www.dropbox.com/s/8rp7fbc1zbv8qd2/EU%20Referendum%20Analysis%202016%20-%20Jackson%20Thorsen%20and%20Wring%20v1.pdf?dl=0 .p.14