Understanding the Victory of the “NO” in the Colombian Plebiscite

In a historic plebiscite that took place on October 2nd , the Colombian people decided not to support a peace agreement brokered between the Santos administration and the FARC seeking to end to the armed conflict. The plebiscite has deep political implications beyond the peace process, as it can shape the political panorama in Colombia for the next decade. With a strong political battle expected to take place, understanding the victory of the “NO” in the plebiscite and the road that lies ahead is key at this critical juncture.

The Colombian Government and the left-wing guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) reached a peace agreement to end the armed conflict earlier this year, after 4 years of negotiations. The agreement –a more than 300-page document – was presented to the Colombian people in a plebiscite to ask whether they supported it or not. Although this was not legally necessary, President Santos and others saw the vote as an important way to give the agreement legitimacy.

What happened on Sunday, October 2nd?

  • On October 2nd, only 40% of eligible voters went out to vote (13% was the minimum percentage required for a legally binding result). This was a low turnout for such a historic vote, however it isn’t too far from the levels of participation on national elections over the last 10 years. Indeed, the turnout for the last presidential election was 47.9%.
  • The results were marginally in favor of those not supporting the agreement, with 50.21% for NO and 49.78% for YES.
  • A week prior to the plebiscite, the polls had estimated a win victory for the YES with 66%. Most people expected the YES to win, even though the country saw starkly divided opinions throughout the process.
  • There was a significant geographical divide. Overall trends indicated that in the majority of the areas that have suffered the horrors of the conflict, YES was the winner.

A Bit of Background

The Peace agreement was a complex document. It touched on a number of critical issues, such as: rural reform, a transitional justice system arrangement, a pathway for the FARC to become a political party and a process to give up the arms, reparation for the victims, and the return of ex-combatants to civilian life (including a financial package to support guerrilla men and women while they return to society) among others.

Unfortunately, fragmentation of the country given historical, political and social reasons did not facilitate the approval of the agreement. The current opposition to the government, led by ex-President Uribe, ran an effective campaign with a strategy based on misinformation, as revealed few days after after the plebiscite. The NO campaign worked on inaccurate interpretations of the accord; it harnessed the mistrust in the FARC by some citizens and built fears of a possible power takeover by the guerrilla group to transform the country into a socialist regime.

Besides this situation, some of the elements of the accord that proved unpopular amongst NO voters include: unaccepted levels of impunity with the proposed transitional justice framework; Political participation for FARC members in legislative chambers, as the agreement secured 5 seats for FARC in Senate and Congress for two periods of government (8 years in total) as a way to facilitate their entrance into politics through their own political party; The special powers to the president in order to fast-track legislations and other reforms needed to implement the agreement; and, finally, the gender specific focus, as the document sought to recognize the differential impact of the conflict on women and the LBGTQ population. Some faith based organizations, however, interpreted this as a “gender ideology” that threatened family values.

Other important points that help explain how the NO won:

  • The government underestimated the low levels of trust for the FARC across the country.
  • The Santos government is deeply unpopular across the country. Having Santos as the key figure of peace doesn’t give much confidence to a large share of the population. It is unclear whether this will change for better or for worse after he received the Nobel Peace Prize last week.
  • The fact that the agreement was presented as a done deal - especially during the signing ceremony- turned away a lot of voters for a few reasons: many assumed the political machinery behind the YES would guarantee its victory (whether citizens supported the agreement or not) so they did not turn out to vote. On the other hand, many voted NO to resist the government handling of the process, presented at the national and international level as a done deal.
  • The government insisted in a false dichotomy: YES is for peace, NO is for war. Many Colombians felt that this framing was an unfair treatment to a really complex issue, where some didn’t like the accord but did want peace.

What happens now?

We don’t know yet, but the stronger narrative that has been echoed during past weeks is the possibility to renegotiate a new agreement with FARC, with the NO leaders having a seat at the table to voice their concerns and provide new proposals. Meanwhile, UN peacekeepers will remain in the country for at least a few more weeks, but their stay is now more uncertain than ever. President Santos has extended the ceasefire to the end of October, but beyond that, it is uncertain what will happen to the bilateral ceasefire without concentration zones and external verification. FARC has also said that they are committed to continue this process, as “words are their only weapon right now”.

In the days after the plebiscite President Santos met with other parties, including the opposition. There was a decision to create a Commission with members of the NO and YES teams to discuss what to do going forward. However, things can get tricky. In a speech after the results, Uribe indicated an interest to come to an agreement with FARC, softening his speech against them but also showing that he has a bigger agenda for national reform that goes well beyond the peace agreement. The plebiscite has deep political implications beyond the peace process; it can shape the political panorama in the next decade. It is expected now that a strong political battle will take place, particularly around the imminent tax reform.

And the climate agenda?

The Climate agenda will have to fight for space. The peace agreement and tax reform will probably keep on concentrating – even more – the resources and priorities of the government. The Paris ratification process is still under way in congress. It is not yet known whether now it will be delayed or not.

With the country’s finances very squeezed at the moment – risking being downgraded by rating agencies unless a tax reform takes place – questions have been raised on how to finance the implementation of a peace accord and a more politicized space with a strengthened opposition. There are risks that a case could be made to expand efforts on fossil fuel exploration, as a large part of the public budget comes from royalties in that sector.

The peace agreement was key for making possible to better manage land across the country, and the government had plans to contain possible spread out of deforestation (main source of Greenhouse Gases in Colombia). Now there is uncertainty about what will happen on that front, particularly as Uribe has shown opposition to the Land Fund, and has previously been pro weak environmental and social standards, which are critical elements to build long lasting peace and sustainable development.

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