What's next for Colombia after 'no' vote on referendum?

Wednesday will be crucial in determining the future of the country as President Juan Manuel Santos and Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez meet to thrash out a way forward with the peace deal.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Sunday’s “yes” or “no” vote was split almost in half, with 50.2 per cent of Colombians voting against the deal and 49.8 per cent supporting it.

Updated Oct 5, 2016

As she drove through the crowded streets of Bogota on Monday morning, Lilian Otoya reflected on her decision to vote “no” in the referendum which scrutinised the peace deal between the Colombian government and left-leaning guerrilla movement the FARC. “It’s a bitter victory,” says the 51-year-old single and working mother of one. “It’s incredible that, against all odds, we won. But at the same time I’m scared of what comes next. Is the FARC going to react violently? Is our image within the international community going to freeze foreign investment?”

Wednesday will be crucial in determining what comes next. President Juan Manuel Santos and Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez will meet and attempt to thrash out a way forward with the peace deal. This will be the first huddle between the two leaders in years.

Otoya knew a “no” vote would bring unprecedented uncertainty, but she still could not bring herself to support the peace deal. “There’s no such thing as an ex-assassin,” she says. “And there have to be consequences for the FARC, who murdered a lot of people. I voted for peace too, but my vote was for a peace without impunity.”

The ceasefire is expected to hold until October 31. If no deal is reached then, Santos has said he will see if it can be extended. The FARC have answered with precaution, saying they will order their forces to be on the defensive. The guerrilla group asked on Twitter: "From then on, does the war continue?".

Recent polls had predicted voters like Otoya would be a minority throughout Colombia. But on October 2, that ‘small’ majority defeated the historic peace deal that would have ended more than 50 years of conflict with the largest left leaning marxist-guerrilla group in the country. Sunday’s “yes” or “no” vote was split almost in half, with 50.2 per cent of Colombians voting against the deal and 49.8 per cent supporting it.


"Yes" supporters were left in shock after a majority voted no to the question: Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?.

Low turnout

With less than 38 per cent eligible voters casting their votes, Sunday’s referendum saw the lowest voter turnout in 22 years.

The nationwide abstention rate was widely affected by the anaemic voting activity registered in the Caribbean coast of the country, a region that is believed to be supportive of the deal and of Santos. Carlos Lemoine, president of the National Center for Consultancy, a polling company, says Hurricane Matthew was a major factor in the low voter turnout.

But the “yes” camp also misjudged the optics. Santos refrained from campaigning, since he was afraid his unpopularity would negatively impact the referendum vote. His absence in the Caribbean region of the country was translated into a lack of motivation amongst voters. “That could have made the difference,” says Lemoine. “That could have meant more than a million more votes in a region that was inclined to vote yes.”

Nobody saw the results of Sunday’s referendum coming. Recent polls, such as the one conducted by Gallup on September 20, predicted 67 per cent of the country would vote “yes”. Lemoine says this discrepancy is caused by what he calls “the spiral of silence phenomenon” in which people hide their voting intentions because they feel stigmatised.

“People who were going to vote ‘no’ felt they were frowned upon by society, so they remained silent, making it impossible for pollsters to accurately predict actual voting patterns.”

Those who were convinced of a “yes” victory were stunned at the results. Ricardo Santamaria, a former adviser to the government’s negotiating team, says he was floored when he saw the vote count.

Fear triumphs over hope

“It was fear of the FARC, fear of Castro-chavismo that won,” Santamaria said. He was referring to a term the opposition has coined to define the Venezuela-like future they believe awaits Colombia if the peace deal is implemented. “But it is a legitimate fear” and it has to be paired with the “yes” side’s hope to come to an agreement, he added.

Santamaria’s sentiment summarises the “yes” side’s attitude. They are all trying to salvage four years of negotiation and figure out what comes next. Although deeply wounded by the unexpected referendum outcome, they refuse to let go of the notion of a Colombia at peace.

“I had hope up until the last minute of the vote count on Sunday,” says Santamaria. “But I have even greater hopes now, because I know we still have options, and we will now work for a nationwide peace.” 

The FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, known by the nickname Timochenko, said the guerrilla group would “analyse calmly the results of the vote in order to continue because this does not mean that the battle for peace is lost."

Does the original peace deal hold?

According to the FARC’s legal adviser, Enrique Santiago Romero, it does.

In a radio interview, Romero said the signed deal was immutable in the eyes of international law. It was signed by two warring parties and deposited in Geneva, he explained. However, renegotiation is not an impossibility even in Romero’s eyes.

“It won’t be easy, but I would be willing to modify some of the points on justice.” In other words, the issue of impunity could be resolved if even presidential figures – like Uribe – can be prosecuted under the renegotiated agreement.

The disarmament process of the FARC, however, is postponed indefinitely.

The UN observer mission, which was meant to oversee the disarmament process, is to remain in the country to guarantee the ceasefire is maintained. 

Senator Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's former president,has said his Democratic Center Party will not sit down to negotiate with the FARC.

Who comes to the table?

On Monday evening, Santos created a commission of three delegates to establish conversations with three leaders of the opposition’s Democratic Center Party appointed by Uribe Velez. As the main force behind the “no” campaign, the Democratic Center party is expected to have at least some input into the new negotiating terms. The government delegates and opposition leaders are to immediately meet in La Habana, where, for the last four years, the negotiations between the government and the FARC have been held.

“I will not give up, I will continue searching for peace until the last minute of my mandate because that is the path we have to take to make this country a better place for our children,” said Santos in a concession-like speech.

It is uncertain as to when a new peace deal can be reached, if one can be reached at all.

The Democratic Center Party, empowered by the “no” victory, demands prison sentences for FARC members who committed crimes against humanity, and is opposed them running for public office. The FARC members such as Romero say the Democratic Center Party’s involvement is important. 

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during a presidential address in Bogota, Colombia. October 2, 2016.

Is a referendum needed?

If a new deal is reached, it is unlikely that the president will ask the Colombian people to vote on it once again.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court, the highest judicial court in the country, has ruled that a referendum is not necessary for the deal to be binding. Sunday’s referendum was a promise Santos made back in 2012 when the negotiations just started. It was an attempt to give the deal legitimacy. 

The uncertainty the “no” vote has generated can have deep consequences. On Monday, the value of the peso dropped sharply against the dollar, and foreign investment is expected to decrease.

But for now, Santos seems determined to continue with his project for peace in a country that has proven to be deeply divided. This time around, however, the president will be forced to negotiate with yet another opponent – Uribe Velez and his powerful party. 

AuthorMariana Palau for TRT World