Sunday’s referendum could have ended the 52-year long conflict between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But it did not. 50.2% of Columbia’s population rejected the deal, while 49.8% were in favour. This amounts to a difference of less than 54 000 votes out of 13 million ballots. This begs the question: Are referenda a good way to deal with such momentous decisions? And what options are left for Colombia now? By Stine Lehmann-Larsen and Arvid Hallberg

What next?

For the past four years the Colombian Government and the FARC have negotiated an end to the 52 year long civil war. The 297-pages peace accords address an array of very complex issues, including how the FARC will lay down their arms, disband and transform into a political party. Further, they map out how Colombia can ensure that former FARC rebels are reintegrated into the country peacefully and safely. On September 26th the accords were signed, with ensuing fanfare and congratulations flowing in from all over the world.

Yesterday, the Colombian population rejected the accords through the ballot box. Polls prior to the vote hinted at landslide support for the agreement – but rejection won, by a razor thin margin. The voters in the provinces and cities hit hardest by the conflict appear to have supported the peace deal to a much greater extent than voters in areas less affected by it; in Bojaya, where at least 119 people were killed in a FARC mortar attack, 96% voted “yes”. Generally, the government appears to have failed to enthuse the public about this particular outcome which is reflected in the low turnout with fewer than 38% of the population casting their votes. The heavy rains also contributed to stifle the turnout. By comparison, voter participation for the 2014 presidential elections stood at almost 48%. No matter how one voted, in Colombia today, an entire nation asks itself “What happens now”? 

The dangerous power of a referendum

Starting and ending a conflict are similarly strategic decisions for a state. The decision to go to war is of the very highest strategic importance and nobody suggests that it be subjected to a referendum. It is therefore remarkable that states frequently use referenda when deciding to make peace.

Historically, a vote as close as this is unique in a peace process referendum. When successful, such as those in Algeria 1996 and 2005, or Northern Ireland in 1998, they can secure the mandate needed to implement a peace agreement. However, they are also dangerously unpredictable: a deterring example being the referendum on the Annan plan in Cyprus. Staunch Turkish nationalists opposed the agreement, which caused the Greek Cypriots to doubt if the Turkish Cypriots would implement the plan. The politics won out and in twin referendums in April 2004 the Annan plan was soundly defeated.

However, Colombia is not Cyprus. President Santos, who previously said there was “no plan B” if voters rejected the deal, appears to remain calm. The NO-voters who rejected the deal are not categorically against an agreement, and the result of the referendum is much too close for four years of negotiations to be thrown away. At this point there are two options available. First, return to the negotiation table and revise the deal to address the grievances of the NO-voters. Second, see this as an opportunity for a National Dialogue in which the major political and societal actors get together and address the shortcomings in the process. A third, albeit improbable option is of course for President Santos is to annul the result of the referendum based on the low voter turnout. However, the constitutional court has already ruled that the outcome of the referendum is binding making an annulment exceedingly unlikely.

Referendum on peace accords... not on peace

Right now the most important thing is for all parties to remain calm and return to the negotiating table. If the ceasefire fails, then years of progress may become undone. The referendum was held on the peace accords, not on peace itself. Enough trust has been built over the past four years that even a major setback such as this can be handled with words instead of bullets. The Colombian government and the FARC will have to accept that renegotiations and changes must occur in order to satisfy the most burning concerns of the people.

Alternatively, should Colombia opt for a National Dialogue then all political and societal actors as well as representatives from other armed groups, civil society organizations, and social movements should be part of the process to ensure all relevant voices are heard. The process should not be confined to Bogotá, instead it must reach out and connect with all of Colombia’s regions and diaspora.

An amended peace agreement will undoubtedly be tougher on the FARC, but it is vital that they continue with the process. The leadership is in a weak spot, watching the outcome they counted on to keep rank-and-file. They must be supported and persuaded not to bolt when things get rough as a result of new, tougher demands. If Cyprus was a worrying example of a referendum turning a peace process into a protracted conflict, a future Colombia without a peace process presents an even bleaker, and more violent, scenario. With the spectre of a failed peace agreement hanging over the country, Colombia must let calm and cool heads prevail.

In other words: “Keep calm and carry on negotiating”.

© Photo by Marco Suárez [CC BY 2.0)