LatAm Talk at the European University Institute: “Colombia: democracy against peace?

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The LatAm Working Group held its first LatAm Talk at the Badia Fiesolana on 8 November 2016. The purpose of LatAm Talks is to have informal but informed discussions on issues currently affecting the Latin American region. On this first occasion, four EUI researchers shared their views on the outcome of the referendum recently organised in Colombia.

On 2 October 2016, Colombian voters rejected the peace agreement between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The referendum was meant to close four years of arduous negotiations between the two parts. However, 50.2% of voters said “no”, with a turnout of less than 38% of the electoral census. How to explain and interpret these results?

Paula Zuluaga (SPS) provided a general contextualisation of the situation. She insisted on the length and intensity of the Colombian conflict — the most long-lasting civil conflict in the world, making almost 6.8 million direct victims since 1958. Paula made a comprehensive presentation of the six points that were discussed by negotiators. These included a rural reform (one of the oldest problems in Colombian politics throughout the twentieth century), and the measures for the pacification of Colombian society, including the participation of FARC members in politics. The agreement also foresaw a salient role for the United Nations, especially for disarmament and implementation processes.

Paula also launched the debate on the analysis of the referendum result by assessing the most relevant figures. With graphics and maps, she highlighted the links between poverty, inequality, violence, and the results of the vote. Data seemed to show that “no” voters were mostly concentrated in the central and urban regions of the country —precisely those regions that were less affected by the poverty, inequality, and violence exacerbated by the conflict. In her tentative reading of the referendum results, Paula suggested that the influence of ex-President Álvaro Uribe’s opposition to the peace agreement might have had a decisive impact in those voters who said “no”.

Sonia Ariza Navarrete (LAW) brought forward a point that seemed peripheral, and yet was at the core of controversy: gender. In fact, the Colombian peace agreement was the first agreement of the kind ever to deal with the specific impacts of armed conflicts on women and LGBTTI persons. Almost 3 million Colombian women were direct or indirect victims of the conflict, and sexual violence was an extended and pervasive practice. During the negotiations, a specific round table addressed gender issues transversally. However, the results of these gendered discussions were very controversial and ignited a vivid debate in Colombia. One the one hand, some feminist and LGBTTI movements found the proposals too vague and too conservative. On the other hand, fierce opposition to the so-called “gender ideology” emanated from different political and religious leaders. All in all, Sonia’s argument was to call attention on this apparently minor point, which might have had a strong impact on people voting “no”. As far as gender issues are concerned, Colombia is today one of the most progressive countries in Latin America; but this has also entailed bitter controversy. In this context, as Sonia suggested, some opponents to the peace agreement might have exaggerated the polemic and sensitive issue of gender to polarise the Colombian society and mobilise conservative voters.

Davide Morise (Doctor in SPS) gave a sense of how the mechanisms of voter mobilisation might have worked. He presented the tentative results of a collective research experience that tried to measure the influence of short and clear-cut opinions conveyed through media on voting behaviour. The definitive results are available on the article “How governments pitch a referendum is a big deal. Here’s what we learned in Colombia” (Washington Post, 10 December 2016).

Similarly, Krysztof Krakowski (SPS) referred to his past experimental research on the impact of the perceived difference between past and present peace agreements. He suggested that, when voters are told that the new agreement contains a tougher treatment of belligerents than the past agreement, voters tend to be more favourable to this new agreement.

Besides that, Krysztof also shared his field experience in Colombia during the time of the referendum. He underlined the role of such apparently minor factors as weather or lack of transportation to explain the especially high level of abstention. The discussion that followed also tackled the issue of abstention.

Some participants underlined the imperfections of the Colombian democracy. Julie Wetterslev made a longer point based on an article that she will share as a separate blog post.

One of the issues raised by the participants regarded the future of the agreement, especially whether a new version of it would be submitted to referendum again, or would simply be passed through congressional approval. To this respect, it seems clear now that the electoral rejection was only one additional step in the process: President Santos, awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize a few days after the referendum, is decided to get the peace agreement approved as soon as possible. On 12 November, a new version of the document was presented. Our discussions, thus, remain open.

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