Why Colombia’s Referendum Result Poses an Opportunity for Peace

By: Charlotte Manson

The ‘No’ vote in Colombia should be viewed as an opportunity to secure an inclusive agreement for a durable peace.
The ‘No’ vote in Colombia should be viewed as an opportunity to secure an inclusive agreement for a durable peace.

Results from Sunday’s referendum in Colombia have been described as astonishing and disappointing that will potentially throw the country into tumultuous uncertainty. Many journalists leapt to compare Brexit and recent referendums in Hungary and Thailand with Colombia denouncing the use of referendums as “messy, dangerous and not as democratic as they may seem”  and as political tools for leaders. Other commentators pointed out that despite their rising popularity, referendums are continuously producing an unexpected and unintended result due to the problematic nature of reducing complex issues to a binary choice.

Yes, there are risks with referendums but there is one essential difference in the Colombian conflict as El Pais points out, “there are weapons involved.” In other words, the rejection of the referendum in Colombia should not necessarily lead to a rejection of using referendums to make peace.

The result of the vote on Colombia’s peace process by 50.2% – 49.8% with a voter turnout of 37.4% on Sunday 2nd October is therefore a wake-up call. This outcome was a declination of the particular deal that emerged from the peace process. Mass demonstrations have taken place across the country since the vote results were announced, demanding that the peace be salvaged, preventing any return to war. Both the Government and FARC have repeatedly vowed to maintain the ceasefire and press on with negotiations. Yet Colombia’s former President and leader of the ‘No’ camp, Alvaro Uribe has made clear that he wishes to amend the existing deal but he has ruled out any direct participation in talks with FARC rebels. A large number of Colombians remain sceptical of the current terms in the existing peace deal, hoping that Uribe will push for a tougher stance on prosecution and punishment of FARC members. The guerrilla group’s leader Rodrigo Lodono – better known under his alias as Timochenko – has the added pressure of having to sell the peace accord to all FARC members in order to avoid dissident activity. However, can the setback of the ‘No’ vote thus pose an opportunity for peace?

First, if peace negotiations are not inclusive, they will not produce a positive result. As negotiations in Northern Ireland prior to 1998 proved, excluded voices will find alternative ways to espouse their opinion. Uribe has thus far been exempt from all peace negotiations despite leading the “No” camp with support from millions of Colombians. His voice, along with his supporters who reject the current peace process, came to the fore through the referendum result.

Within days of the ‘no’ vote, President Santos and the FARC rebels announced that Uribe needs to be at the negotiation table. Speaking in the Senate, Uribe said his party “has the will for dialogue”, while President Santos has selected three negotiators for bilateral talks with Uribe’s Democratic Centre party. Going forward with the peace process, the inclusion of members of Uribe’s party will allow for more hard-line opinions, much of which the charismatic Uribe represents, to be represented in the negotiations. Still it remains to be seen whether Uribe sustains the willingness to enter talks with FARC.

However, President Santos has managed to make strides in re-engaging with the country’s second largest left-wing, rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN). Earlier this week, he announced that the Government-ELN formal talks will begin on 3 November 2016 in Quito, Ecuador after three years of stalemate. Earlier negotiations with the 2000-strong ELN were markedly different to talks with FARC as high-profile ELN-kidnapping activities forced the Government to cut off all discussions in May of this year. Although the rebel-group still hold a number of prisoners captive, recent prisoner releases – including Spanish journalist Salud Hernandez Mora – are viewed as a signal of the ELN’s desire to be involved in the peace negotiations. Thus it is the inclusivity of all future negotiations that is the deal-breaker. The referendum result provides the chance to correct this mistake.  

Second, peace is not automatic even if overwhelming support is secured. Imagine the result of the vote had been different and the majority (50.2% based on the results of the recent referendum) of people voted ‘Yes’ – would it be fair for the peace agreement to be ratified despite 49.8% of voters rejecting the terms of peace plus more than 50% abstained voters?

In Northern Ireland, 71.1% of people voted ‘Yes’ in the Good Friday referendum of 1998. Despite significant changes that have occurred since, the power-sharing government in Belfast still faces serious challenges and 98 physical peace walls exist in Belfast today. In South Sudan an overwhelming majority of 98.8% voted for independence in 2011 ending Africa’s longest running civil war. Yet five years on, the euphoria of peace has perished as the country is embroiled in civil war, with millions of internally displaced persons and chaotic power-sharing governance

Remarkably, a minimum of 13% of the 4.4 million registered voters was required for the accord to be ratified. For such a decision after 52-years of conflict, the people need to have their say on a peace accord negotiated by the few. But the task of securing peace in any post-conflict society is formidable, even when majority support for peace is secured.

Third, finding out why people voted as they did is very important going forward, besides cumbersome weather conditions. Abstention in Colombia’s elections is usually higher than 50% – recent presidential elections saw 59.9% turnout – and the 37.4% turnout on Sunday is lower than was widely expected.

As Annette Idler correctly pointed out a substantial part of the Colombian population demonstrated with their votes they are ready to join ‘Pact of Reconciliation’ – it was just not enough to constitute a peace deal for all Colombians. But what about those who abstained, and did not put forward their opinion on the peace deal?

Civil society should organise, promote open dialogue and establish an equitable presence in the media. Uribe has the advantage of securing consistent media coverage due to his political machine and negotiations between the Government and FARC are rigorously followed by both Colombian and international media. There are diverse opinions in Colombia and as the high-level negotiators discuss the most contentious points, so too should civil society take part in the conversation.

Fourth, when analysing the geographic distribution of the vote, there is a large rural-urban divide in Colombia. Those further away from the zones of FARC activity, and those residing in urban areas voted ‘No’, with the exception of voters in Bogotá. In stark contrast, the country’s peripheries include many of the hardest hit provinces hardest hit by the ongoing FARC violence – for example those whom experienced bombings, hostage-taking and murders. Colombian newspaper La Silla Vacia reported that 67 of the 81 municipalities most affected by the conflict voted Yes in the referendum. In the town of Bojayá, where one of the FARC worst massacres was carried out in 2002 – after a rocket hit a church where more than 117 people sought refuge, all of whom were killed – the Yes vote won by 96%.

Colombia is highly divided on the issue of negotiating the conditions for peace, and it’s no wonder. The scale of the task towards reaching peace is immense: demobilisation, disarmament, reintegration, options of transitional justice, acceptance of FARC in everyday society including holding elected public office, scaling down the lucrative $30bn cocaine trade and the vast criminal networks associated with FARC.

No peace process allows for winners and losers, it is a compromise. Therefore all Colombians, particularly those at the negotiating table, are being tested on their commitment to ending the violence. So the setback from the referendum can be turned into an advantage. Reconciliation does not occur overnight and this referendum setback is part of the long process.

Therefore trust is key right now. Trust in the process, in the negotiators, in FARC sticking to their word, and in Santos and Uribe placing their personal and political differences aside and instilling confidence in the public, so that all parties are committed to moving forward. The potential for the peace process to ultimately result in an agreement that all sides can adhere to remains, despite the setback in the recent referendum. Indeed, when the Nobel Peace Prize Committee handed out the Prize to President Santos on Friday 7th October the Committee stressed “the fact that a majority of the voters said No to the peace accord does not necessarily mean that the peace process is dead”.

Colombia held a peaceful referendum ending in a disappointing result. Yet there are so many opportunities for Santos, Timochenko, Uribe, civil society and all other stakeholders to get a better deal in which the majority of Colombians can accept. The ‘No’ vote should be viewed as an opportunity to secure an inclusive agreement for a durable peace.



Charlotte Manson is a conflict resolution specialist having worked on peace-building and reconciliation projects in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Bahrain, Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories. She obtained a MA War Studies from KCL and is a Graduate of Sciences Po Paris and the University of Glasgow. Charlotte is currently a Policy Advisor in the European Parliament working on the Brexit negotiations following the UK’s referendum on the EU. You can follow her on Twitter @cemanson27.




[1] ‘Why Referendums Aren’t as Democratic as They Seem’ New York Times October 4 2016; http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/05/world/americas/colombia-brexit-referendum-farc-cameron-santos.html

[2] ‘Colombia, like the UK, just sabotaged itself through a referendum The Independent, October 4 2016; http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/colombia-farc-brexit-referendum-sabotaged-itself-a7344866.html

[3] ‘Why Referendums are problematic yet more popular than ever’ The Guardian, October 6 2016; https://www.theguardian.com/politics/political-science/2016/oct/06/why-referendums-are-problematic-yet-more-popular-than-ever

[4] ‘Embattled Colombian government fights to save FARC peace deal’ El Pais, October 4 2016; http://elpais.com/elpais/2016/10/04/inenglish/1475582361_630819.html?rel=mas

[5] ‘Why the Colombian peace agreement failed, and what we can expect now’ The Washington Post, October 4 2016; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/04/why-the-colombia-peace-agreement-failed-and-what-we-can-expect-now/

[6] ‘Thousands march for peace in Bogotá and throughout Colombia’ The City Paper Bogotá, October 6 2016; https://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/massive-peace-march-takes-over-bogota/14834

[7] Colombia’s peace deal in limbo after shock referendum’ Reuters, October 3 2016; http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSKCN1230BH

[8] Colombia’s Santos rival Uribe willing to work on peace deal’ Reuters October 6 2016; http://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-peace-idUSKCN1251MX

[9]  ‘Colombie: la paix, les FARC et la <<théorie du genre>>’ Le Monde October 6 2016; http://www.lemonde.fr/ameriques/article/2016/10/06/colombie-la-paix-les-farc-et-la-theorie-du-genre_5009083_3222.html

[10] ‘Defeat of FARC pact puts focus on Alvaro Uribe’s next step’ The Financial Times October 5 2016; https://www.ft.com/content/26149bda-8ac8-11e6-8cb7-e7ada1d123b1

[11] ‘Colombie: Santos et Uribe tentent de sauver l’accord de paix avec les FARC’ France 24 October 6 2016; http://www.france24.com/fr/20161006-juan-manuel-santos-alvaro-uribe-accord-paix-farc-guerilla-referendum

[12] ‘Colombia to begin formal peace talks with ELN in November while salvaging deal with FARC’ The City Paper Bogotá October 11 2016; https://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/colombia-to-begin-formal-talks-with-eln-in-november/14912

[13] Colombia ELN rebels free Spanish journalist Hernandez Mora BBC News May 28 2016; http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36403957

[14] Results of the Referenda in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, Friday 22 May 1998, Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) Ulster University; http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/politics/election/ref1998.html

[15] Official Southern Sudan Referendum 2011 Results, ; http://southernsudan2011.com/

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[17] ‘Colombia’s Referendum: Low Turnout and Activist Minorities’ Security Praxis October 3 2016; http://www.security-praxis.eu/article/colombia-referenda-low-turnout-activist-minorities/

[18] ‘Colombia Referendum: Voters reject FARC peace deal’ BBC News October 3 2016; http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-37537252

[19] ‘Así es el país que votó No’ La Silla Vacía October 5 2016; http://lasillavacia.com/hagame-el-cruce/asi-es-el-pais-que-voto-no-58201

[20] ‘Colombia War Brings Carnage to Village Altar’ New York Times May 9 2002; http://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/09/world/colombia-war-brings-carnage-to-village-altar.html?pagewanted=all

[21] ‘Colombia’s proof that democracy doesn’t work’ New York Times, October 7 2016;http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/09/opinion/sunday/colombias-proof-that-democracy-doesnt-work.html

[22] ‘The lessons of Colombia’s extraordinary peace process’ BBC News, September 29 2016; http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-37498940

[23] ‘Nobel Peace Prize for Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos’ BBC News, October 7 2016 ; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-37585188

[24] Image Source:  http://topsy.fr/hashtag.php?q=%23PazColombia

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