Is this the end of the peace deal in Colombia?

Many hoped the referendum on the peace deal would unify Colombia but the vote has served as a stark reminder of the polarization within the country. Low turnouts and weak campaigning derailed what might have been a Nobel Peace Prize winning moment.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

There is a prevailing sense among supporters of the peace deal that those who voted against it, are not those who have borne the brunt of the half century long conflict.

Updated Oct 17, 2016
Pablo Medina Uribe Pablo Medina Uribe is a Colombian multimedia journalist and writer based in New York and Bogotá. He writes about politics, sports, music, and their intersections, and publishes in Spanish, English and Italian. @derpoltergeist

Colombia’s referendum on the landmark peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla has plunged the country deep into uncertainty. The peace deal that was finalized in Havana, Cuba, after four years of negotiations, and that had been signed in an extravagant ceremony in Cartagena, is now legally void.

Even though President Juan Manuel Santos had signed the final peace agreement last Monday, and even though every poll had “yes” winning, “no” won by a very small margin: 50.21 to 48.78 percent, a difference of about 54,000 votes.

With a different outcome, FARC members would have begun to move into concentration zones where they would start to disarm and reintegrate into civilian life. With this result however, they are left on standby. Santos can still legally enact a new peace agreement without the need for public consultation, but it will be politically impossible to do so now without the support of those who opposed the deal on Sunday.

Thankfully, this uncertainty has been peaceful. Santos addressed the country on Sunday night and said the bilateral ceasefire with the FARC achieved during the peace talks was still valid. The guerrilla then published a press release in which they said their only weapons now “are words,” and that they wanted to keep negotiating. Santos also said he was willing to meet and talk with those who promoted the ‘no’ vote, to discuss the proposals they claimed throughout the campaign to reach a better peace deal.

Senator Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's former president, has been sent back to the drawing board but it is not clear which authority will renegotiate the peace deal with FARC.

But on Monday morning, former President and current senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the main ‘no’ supporter, said that he and his Centro Democrático party needed time to figure out what should be the next steps. On Monday night, Uribe said any new peace agreement that materializes should guarantee FARC member’s protection and amnesty for crimes that are not war crimes, or crimes against humanity. These were two points that were already extensively laid out in the peace deal that was rejected on Sunday. Uribe also proposed to extend an expanded amnesty to members of the military.

Early on Monday, Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator with the FARC, resigned from his post in a press conference. However, Santos did not accept his resignation and, instead, named him, along with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, María Ángela Holguín, and the Minister of Defense, Luis Carlos Villegas, to a committee that will meet with members from the Centro Democratico and other parties to discuss the possibility and the terms of a new peace deal.

It’s crucial to recognize that this result is only representative of a small portion of Colombians. The turnout was very low, only 37.43 percent of the close to 35 million people who were allowed to vote headed to the polls.

Part of the low turnout could be blamed on mother nature. On Saturday hurricane Matthew hit the northern part of Colombia, a region known as the Atlantic Coast, causing floods that forced many voting places to shut down. Heavy rains here and throughout the country on Sunday morning might have discouraged people from going out to vote. In each of the seven departamentos making up the Atlantic Coast the vote for yes won, but turnout here was between 23 and 33 percent.

A small part of the high abstention numbers could be explained by the fact that there was no process to register to vote in a different voting place from one used in previous elections. Many people who had moved cities or even countries could not vote. But, mostly, the low turnout can be explained by the fact that parties did not invest in the resources – like transportation and food for potential voters – they usually spend during regular elections to mobilize voters.

The mobilization of voters from remote regions was weak and bad weather contributed to low turnouts.

From those few who did vote, however, a pattern can be seen: Many of the towns who suffered the most because of the FARC guerrilla voted overwhelmingly ‘yes’.

The most emblematic case is the one of Bojayá, a town in the western region of Chocó, where the FARC killed more than a hundred people by exploding a bomb in the main church. Here, ‘yes’ got 95.78 percent of the vote.

In Cauca, where FARC has routinely bombed and destroyed towns, ‘yes’ won everywhere.

In Antioquia, the region where Medellín (Uribe’s hometown and Colombia’s second biggest city) is the capital, ‘no’ won almost everywhere. But not in Urabá, a region near the border with Panama that has been in the crossfire of the Colombian conflict for decades.

Three of the four largest cities in the country, Bogotá, Cali and Barranquilla, voted ‘yes’. But the perception remains that urban centers that have not felt the burden of war decided to reject this peace deal, while small, remote, rural, less populated communities that have borne the weight of conflict did not have the numbers to voice their hope for peace.

Some voted no because they felt the FARC were being let off too easily for their kidnappings, massacres and acts of terrorism. Some felt they were lying about their cash reserves and understating their involvement in drug trafficking. Some voted no because of lies perpetrated by some politicians and social media – like Bogotá's councilman Marco Fidel Ramírez, who announced his vote for ‘no’ in order to oppose atheism, communism and sexual diversity. And many voted ‘no’ because Uribe, still a massively popular figure, repeated time and again that he was not satisfied with the peace deals.

But the only tangible reality right now is that the country is deeply divided and has no answers for whatever is coming next. With the Havana agreement now dead, only speculation remains. Voters for ‘no’ focused on the argument that the deal conceded too many benefits to FARC, so a new negotiation that satisfies critics of the deal, opposition figures, FARC, the government, and those who voted ‘yes’ in almost the same numbers as those who voted ‘no’ seems tricky at best. And there is no process of going about it in place, so the next steps are still a mystery for all.

The government might sit down to draft a new deal with FARC, but now with Uribe or one of his representatives also at the table. The National Liberation Army (ELN), the second-largest guerrilla in the country might join as well. But maybe none of this will happen. Maybe Uribe will delay any process and he will try to carry this momentum into the 2018 legislative and presidential elections. Or maybe a Constituent Assembly will be enacted and a new constitution drafted. For now, no one knows.