In the four years that it took to negotiate this peace deal, Colombia has been moving inexorably towards October 2, the day that the people could have their say about the deal that would end the five-decade long war. The polls predicted an easy win for the “yes” side. The government’s negotiators and the guerrillas (FARC) campaigned for a strong “yes” vote. This was the best deal that could be had, they said.
There are around 34 million Colombians eligible to vote out of a population of around 48 million. My own prediction was that about half of that would vote in the referendum and around 70% of them would vote “yes”.
But the ‘No’ won with 6,422,136 votes, defeating the ‘Yes’ who came in with 6,361,762. A difference of 60,374 voters. A difference of less than half a percentage point of the 12.8 million who voted. An even smaller fraction of the 21.2 million who didn’t vote.
With peace at stake, why was abstention so high? High abstention is a feature of recent elections – it was high in the 2014 election as well – with 32.9 million eligible voters in 2014, just 14.7 million voted, and only 7.8 million of those voted for the winner, President Santos.
But Santos and the peace bloc weren’t able to get that number to vote “yes”. What happened?
The polls predicting an easy “yes” victory may have played a role. Why would “yes” voters feel the need to vote if the outcome was a foregone conclusion? The “no” side, by contrast, was mobilized by the ever-polarizing ex-President and war candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez.
The areas most affected by the war voted “yes”, while most of the cities voted “no” (Bogota and Cali, however, voted “yes”). Hurricane Matthew may have played a role, since the Caribbean Coast has been severely affected by the war and was expected to be a “yes” stronghold.
Disenchantment with the process played a role. After four years of negotiations, the people were being asked to show up to rubber-stamp a process the parameters of which they did not have a say in setting. Most of them chose not to show up at all, and half of them voted not to give the rubber stamp. Though Colombia’s social movements voted “yes”, they had critiques of the process – that the war against the people would continue under this peace, that the economic model had been left untouched, that their voices were heard only in tokenistic ways at the table. These feelings, and not just the right-wing opposition organized by Uribe, may have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for the “yes” side.
Before despairing of eternal conflict, however, let us clarify what this result was and was not.
It is certainly not a mandate for war. At a virtual tie (50.23% no, 49.76% yes) and with almost twice as many abstainers as voters, this can only be read as a sign of division and a lack of consensus, not the unequivocal statement of a vengeful electorate.
It is not driving FARC straight back into the jungle – certainly not right away. FARC immediately communicated that they view this result as a sign that they must work even harder for peace, and reiterated that they will continue to use only words as their weapons in the days ahead. The cease-fire stands. The negotiators will be back in Cuba this week.
President Santos walked out of the palace to a spontaneous demonstration of people chanting “We Want Peace! Not One Step Back!” and told them, and the media that he would continue to work for peace and that the peace process would continue to move forward. His next step was to call a meeting of all political parties to find a consensus process to move forward. It is unfortunate but inevitable that Uribe’s spoiler party will have to be a part of this process.
The most likely way forward will be to try to make adjustments to the accords that will make it acceptable to at least a substantial number of the “no” campaigners and try to pass them. The “no” side’s main issues were with the “transitional justice” proposals for guerrillas who had committed crimes, with some of the land reform and redistribution proposals, and with the conversion of FARC into a political party. Unfortunately these were also the key points making the deal acceptable to FARC – so the work of making the adjustments will not be straightforward or easy.
One of the campaigners for the peace deal, liberal former senator Piedad Cordoba, tried to find a silver lining, telling TeleSUR that voters had given Colombians an opportunity to dialogue again. Perhaps the “yes” side took the support of the people for granted. As the process moves forward after this turn, proponents of peace are unlikely to forget this hard lesson.
Justin Podur is the author of Haiti’s New Dictatorship (Pluto Press 2012). He has contributed chapters to Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan (University of Toronto Press 2013) and Real Utopia (AK Press 2008). He is an Associate Professor at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies.