4 years since the Colombian government negotiation team and representatives of the FARC guerrillas first sat down at the negotiation table to thrash out a deal to end Colombia’s half-century conflict, Colombians went to the polls yesterday to vote on whether to ratify the deal or not. ‘SI’ or ‘NO’ was the question put to the nearly 35 million Colombians eligible to vote – in the end the question was only answered by 12.8 million people (just 37%). 50.2% of those who made it to polling stations answered ‘NO’ and now Colombia wakes up to a new week facing a divided nation, huge uncertainty over the future of peace in country so bitterly divided by war, and far more questions to ask and answer than ever before.
As has been pointed out by many ‘No’ voters and campaigners this vote was never officially a vote on whether or not to continue the war or have peace; it was vote on the details of the peace accords. “Do you accept the deal as it has been presented?” – this was essentially the question being asked. Negotiators and the government has stated that the deal was the best possible deal they could have reached, and that should it fail to pass there would be no renegotiation. It was perhaps a measure of the complacency and overconfidence of the ‘Yes’ team that President Santos and leaders of the FARC were quick to make conciliatory statements yesterday regarding this pronouncement once ‘No’ was confirmed as the official winner. Whilst both sides have reaffirmed their commitment to peace and are set to begin discussions as to the next step today, there are many questions still to be answered. Will there be a renegotiation? Can the FARC afford to make more concessions on the issues of political participation and punishment? Do they want to? One question has certainly been answered: Colombia is still deeply divided by this brutal conflict that has left so many dead, disappeared or scarred. As novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez put it in a piece by the New York times: “As a society, we are a massive case of post-traumatic stress, because we have grown up in the midst of fear, of anxiety, of the noise of war.” This fear and anxiety regarding the conflict, particularly a deep-rooted mistrust of the FARC, has effectively scuppered the deal that President Santos has staked his entire reputation on passing.
However, in spite of the ‘No’ supporters reaffirmation that this vote was about fixing a bad deal and securing more punishments and less participation for disarmed guerrillas, the demographics of the voting are hard to ignore – in the areas most affected by the actions of the FARC and the war, ‘Yes’ was an overwhelming winner (check out this website for a complete and detailed breakdown of voting by department and municipality). Departments like Choco, Cauca, La Guajira, Narino, Cordoba, Guaviare, Putumayo and Vaupes all returned majorities for ‘Yes.’ Antioquia was the cradle of the ‘No’ vote, with over a million votes cast for ‘No’ (although, tellingly, ‘Yes’ was a clear winner in the coastal regions of the department where the war is still felt the most). In Cauca and the Choco, two regions heavily affected by the war, every single municipality returned a majority vote for ‘Yes.’ Yet there are 2 votes in particular that are being widely shared on social media this morning: in Bojayá, the site of a shocking FARC massacre of over 100 people in 2002, 95% of voters cast their ballots for ‘Yes.’ In Toribio in Cauca, the site of 670 FARC attacks over the past 30 years, ‘Yes’ was also a clear winner. The same goes for La Chinita, the Montes de Maria, the Guajira and many other places that have been ravaged by the worst of the conflict. The polls seem to show that the urban centers voted strongly in favor of ‘No’ whilst rural areas voted strongly for peace. This highlights a strong urban/rural divide that was one of the main reasons for this conflict in the first place, but also demonstrates one of the central ironies of this campaigning leading up to this plebiscite: many people voted ‘No’ claiming that their position was in solidarity with the victims to ensure that the FARC received more punishment, whilst those most likely to have been victimized voted for ‘Yes.’ As Semana pointed out in this excellent article (in Spanish): “The victims voted ‘Yes’.” Last night many of the people celebrating No’s victory went to bed safe in the city, whilst, hundreds of miles away in the countryside, many of their countrymen ended the day with their worst fears renewed.
Another key issue to consider when analyzing these results was the high rate of abstention at the polls. Whilst the referendum was clearly a democratic exercise, the shockingly low voter turnout for such an important and historic vote has made it hard for many on the losing side to accept that a war that seemed to be winding down could be restarted by the mandate of fewer than 7 million people, with a majority of only 0.2%. A combination of voter apathy, mistrust of both sides of the political establishment, and intense rainfall caused by Hurricane Matthew in the coastal regions (a predicted ‘Yes’ region) kept over 20 million registered voters at home. The fact that voters were required to cast their vote in the region where they were registered also made it hard to many people to play their part. Regardless of which side of the argument you fall on, this level of voter apathy is hard to stomach – as many social media posts are suggesting, the ‘Yes’ voters expressing their anger at ‘No’ voters should surely be reserving more disdain for those who failed to cast a vote (at least those who failed to do so when their polling station was in the same city). As with the Brexit vote in Great Britain earlier this year, it seems as though many voters were so sure ‘Yes’ would come out on top that they didn’t see a pressing need to get out and vote. 2016 should certainly go down in history as the year when we all realize that polls are not the same as a vote (good luck Hillary Clinton!).
What is clear is that there are very few winners in all of this: the hardcore ‘No’ supporters celebrating in the streets, chanting ‘Si se pudo’ (‘Yes they could’) felt like they had achieved victory, but that remains to be seen. There have been many comments circulating to the effect of: “everyone wants peace, it will just take more negotiation.” This comment seems to ignore the challenges of the first round of peace talks which took 4 years and coincided with spikes in violence and conflict as both sides sought to strengthen their position. The nation is waiting with bated breath today as negotiators meet up again in Havana and Santos sits down with his political rivals (although, apparently not Alvaro Uribe and his Centro Democratico party – at the risk of editorializing it will be a shocking dereliction of duty if the man who was perhaps most responsible for the ‘No’ victory fails to engage in what comes next) to work out what comes next; the Plan B they openly admitted they didn’t have. The peace accords as they were presented undoubtedly made large concessions to the FARC and it was ultimately too hard for a majority of voters to stomach the idea of FARC commanders in the congress or ex-FARC combatants paying for their crimes with community service and detention. One positive that we can perhaps draw from all of this is that there does seem to be strong will in the FARC not to return to the fighting: if the ceasefire holds and both sides continue their commitment to securing peace some sort of renegotiation might be possible. Whatever comes next, we can only hope the final result is the end of a war that has gone on for far too long and an agreement that manages to unite a country that has been divided by bullets, bombs and now the ballot box.