Colombia is headed to the polls, but not everyone's happy

Close to 34 million people in Colombia are voting in a referendum on Sunday to decide whether the FARC, a left leaning guerrilla group, should be accepted as a legitimate political party after it gives up its arms.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A referendum will take place in Colombia over a historic peace deal between FARC and the Colombian government.

After more than 50 years of internal armed conflict, Colombians might finally know what it’s like to live in peace.

Last week, a peace deal was signed between the Colombian government and the left leaning Marxist-guerrilla group known as the FARC. Now voters will decide if it should stick. On Sunday, the nation will participate in a referendum to decide whether or not to allow the FARC back into the fold.

Around 34 million voters will be asked to vote yes or no to the question: “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?”

If Colombians vote “yes,” the FARC will transform from an illegal armed group that has fought against the government for decades into a legitimate political party. Nobody knows exactly what will happen if Colombia votes against the peace deal, although it is understood that the conflict will eventually start again.

The vote is not a foregone conclusion. The “yes” and “no” campaigns have been in full swing since an agreement between the Colombian government and the rebels was announced on August 24. And the one medium of influence which can — and will — influence the outcome is the media. The “no” campaign insists the government used wealthy businessmen and the media as its spin machine, something refuted by the “yes” campaign.

Negotiations to end the conflict began four years ago. And since then, the idea of holding a referendum has polarised the country.

The country’s most recent polls, conducted on September 20 by prestigious polling companies such as Gallup, predict the “yes” side will win comfortably, with more than 67 per cent of the vote. Public opinion has shifted since late August, when polls indicated Colombians would choose to vote “no.” 

Many Colombians, although inclined to vote "yes" in the referendum, are still opposed to some of the important points laid out in the agreement. According to an Auguest poll conducted by IPSOS, 75 per cent of Colombians don’t want to see FARC members participate in politics. 88 per cent of the country disagrees with the fact that FARC leaders won't pay for their crimes with prison sentences. 

Why do Colombians disagree with many of the individual points of the peace agreement, but support it overall?

Miguel Silva, a former journalist and founder of Everyone for Peace (Todos por La Paz), a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting the “yes” vote, believes the country is tired of war. He believes that the vote is a historic opportunity to change the fortunes of the country for the better.

“This is not necessarily a contradiction,” says Silva. “You can disagree with the how of the agreement, and at the same time agree with the what, which is to establish long-lasting peace,” he says.

Calling on the ‘yes’ men

Those on the “no” side are calling foul play. Luigi Echeverri, president of Colombia First (Primero Colombia), an organisation focusing on campaigning against the accord, says that the “no” side is at a disadvantage. “We don’t have the resources or the political influence of the government and its allies,” he says.

The party Echeverri’s organisation supports is the Democratic Center, which was formed by former president Alvaro Uribe Velez. The group now represents the only political party openly opposing the peace accords. By contrast, a coalition of 10 parties have aligned with the “yes” side.

The “no” side contends that the government’s manipulation of the media is a driving force behind the “yes” vote. There’s no match against the enormous influence the government has on the media throughout the country, according to Echeverri.

He might have a point. Close links between the government and the media are evident in Colombia.

The country’s most important banker and businessman, Luis Carlos Sarmiento has established a good relationship with the government. Many of his businesses, such as construction companies, depend on state-issued licenses. He also owns the country’s largest newspaper, El Tiempo, which has run more opinion articles in favour of the peace process than against it.

Prominent Colombian writer Ricardo Silva Romero, for example, frequently writes pro-peace opinions in his weekly column in the paper. But the opinions of opposition figures, like that of former attorney general Alejandro Ordoñez Maldonado, don’t appear as often. 

For Echeverri, this alliance is played out clearly in the referendum campaign.

But Silva finds this accusation insulting.

“I’ve worked in the media industry for decades, and I simply do not see Sarmiento calling newspaper editors to order their content to be pro “yes”,” he says. According to Silva, there is another example that contradicts Echeverri’s accusation.

The nation’s top news channel, Radio Cadena Nacional (RCN for its acronym in Spanish), “is very critical of the peace process, even though it is owned by the Lulle family, who is in favour of peace,” he says, referring to one of the wealthiest business families in the nation.

Political Marketing Specialist Juan Carlos Gomez agrees with Silva that the public would want to vote “yes” to an end a 52-year-long conflict even if it disagrees with the terms of the peace deal. But he also agrees with Echeverri in that the media, and the link it has with the government, has also played a definitive role in convincing Colombians to vote “yes”.

As the director of the Social Communications and Journalism Program at the Universidad de la Sabana, Gomez has conducted studies that measure the media’s messages towards peace — and voter reactions. “This is an example of what in the communications field we call the “priming theory”, which states that citizens take a decision to vote or form a view on a subject based on the images that they have seen in the media.”

Gomez believes a priming theory-based communication strategy is what dictated the government’s decision to sign the peace deal, and broadcast it nationwide, on September 26, before submitting it to a referendum on the October 2.

At the signing ceremony, president Santos was in tears, FARC leader Timochenko asked for forgiveness, and important world leaders like Ban Ki-moon and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet showed up to support the deal, all dressed in white — harbingers of peace.

Positive images like these have permeated the media for the past month, and have indeed been part of the “yes” side’s communication strategy.

Silva’s non-profit, which represents business figures who believe the agreement will bring financial welfare to the country, has put out hundreds of advertisements painting a hopeful and conflict free Colombia after the agreement.

“Our strategy here was to bet on hope, because hope is an election winner,” says Silva. His campaign strategy was inspired by the “no” campaign for the 1988 referendum in Chile, which asked people if they wanted to continue with dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule. “The “no” side in Chile sold hope and happiness, while Pinochet’s campaign sold a funerary,” says Silva.

In Colombia, the roles of the “yes” and “no” campaigns were reversed, but the strategies were the same.  

‘De-Santizing’ the peace deal

The “yes” side’s campaign strategy also had to overcome major obstacles that weighed against them since the beginning. Most pressing was the issue of president Santos’ unpopularity.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos

“We had to de-Santize the peace process,” says Silva. The “yes” side had to delink the image of the peace process with that of Santos. Colombians hold Santos accountable for rising unemployment and inflation, the devaluation of the peso, and the slowing pace of the economy.

“We had to make people understand this was not Santos’s peace, this was everyone’s peace,” says Silva. Everyone for Peace´s advertisements are filled with voices of celebrities, intellectuals and other influential figures, and with positive facts about important projects like the demining missions and the FARC´s reintegration process.

Detaching Santos from the agreement was essential, considering the “yes” side’s formidable opponent. Former president and now senator Uribe Velez, who enjoys the widest margins of popularity in the whole country, has been the face of the “no” campaign. Uribe Velez has been successful in mobilising public opinion before.

Former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez

However, this time around it seems like Uribe Velez might lose the battle. According to Gomez Giraldo, the director of Communications and Journalism Department at the Universidad de La Sabana, the reason the “no” camp might lose is because their message is too complex for people to understand, especially for a matter that awakens deep emotions within Colombian society.

“The NO campaign strategy has been to argue for political coherence and it goes against a universal value which is peace,” says Giraldo. “Nobody wants to fight against peace.”

As millions head to vote, there is every chance that the polls have it wrong. Colombians might surprise the world by rejecting the deal, quite like the Britons in the Brexit referendum.

It all depends on whether they answer “yes” or “no”.

Author: Mariana Palau for TRT World

TRTWorld and agencies