Back in September 2016, at the 71st United Nations General Assembly, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos triumphantly announced “the end of war in Colombia”.
Since 2012, Santos’ government had been negotiating with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), an armed group that fought the Colombian state for over 50 years. In August 2016, negotiators announced a final agreement to end the conflict that had left 220,000 people dead and displaced millions. Last year, the rebel group relaunched as a political party, changing their logo of rifles for a red rose.
But the historic deal that brought peace to Colombia is now failing. This should come as no surprise after the political gymnastics Santos was forced to perform following the Colombian public’s initial rejection of the treaty in an October 2016 referendum. For Colombia, this means an uncertain and problematic presidential election later this year and, worse, a possible end to an already wobbly peace.
One central element of the framework established during negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC – held in Havana from 2012 to 2016 – was electoral and political reforms. Negotiators grappled with how to include and recognise former guerrillas as formal and legal political actors. As a result, the peace deal at the end of the process failed to offer specific guidelines for electoral reform, only mentioning an abstract need to reform current electoral rules.
An independent Special Electoral Reform Commission was established by Santos’ government in 2017 to move forward the electoral and political reforms discussed during the Havana dialogues. The government believed that such a commission had a chance to deliver substantial reforms because the political class was already cornered by corruption scandals and accusations of electoral fraud – the thinking was that reforms put together by experts, instead of politicians, would be a less politically costly path to put pressure on members of Congress to accept changes to the electoral system.
The commission tried to present a strategy that would be acceptable to both Santos’s government and the FARC, but despite their legitimate efforts, the outcomes have proven disappointing.
The commission’s proposal for electoral reform has not been accepted as a bill in Congress yet. This is why there have been no significant changes in the Colombian electoral process in the past year.
The inclusion and recognition of former guerrillas as formal, legal, political actors was one of the major issues the commission tried to regulate. In its proposal, it offered to introduce two major changes to the electoral system beneficial to FARC candidates: The first grants 10 guaranteed congressional seats for members of the FARC’s political party, and the second creates special electoral districts for areas mainly affected by the conflict – prospects that are unlikely ever to be approved.
The end of the peace process?
For now, a comprehensive bill on electoral reform that would make all power blocs in Colombia’s fractured political arena happy seems to be a distant dream; but the problem facing the country at the moment goes beyond these legal and legislative struggles.
Earlier this month, after four years of exhaustive negotiations, a disastrous referendum and an almost lame-duck president, Colombia’s peace process has finally reached its limits: The FARC announced that its party would be boycotting the upcoming presidential elections, saying its candidates had been attacked and felt unsafe.
Since the signing of the peace deal, part of the right’s electoral strategy has been to disseminate hate to hinder political insertion of the former guerrillas into the political game. Rodrigo Londono, former leader of the FARC and its current candidate for president, recently blamed former President Alvaro Uribe’s Democratic Centre Party of actively sabotaging his new-born party’s electoral campaign in some regions.
Although the FARC is undoubtedly a political phenomenon garnering considerable attention in the media, it is far from being popularly accepted. According to a recent survey by the National Consulting Center, Londono, known by his nom de guerre, Timochenko, has zero backing from the public.
Of course, the electoral participation issue was never among FARC’s main concerns, and its armed actions in the past frequently focused on sabotaging elections. But political participation was at the foundation of the peace deal the government signed with the FARC and the ousting of the former rebel group from mainstream politics seriously threatens Colombia’s already brittle peace.
New political blocks
Out of all the effervescence and political ambiguity created by the peace process, four frontrunners have emerged in the race to become Colombia’s next president. The first is German Vargas Lleras, a veteran centre-right politician who served as vice president to Santos until March 2017. The second is Ivan Duque, who is backed by right-wing former President Alvaro Uribe. The third is former mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, who is representing the far-left in the elections. Finally the fourth, running on a promise to fix Colombia’s economy, is a left-leaning independent candidate, former mathematics professor and ex-governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo.
According to latest polls, Fajardo is leading the race, with Duque a close second.
While Londono seems to have no chance of winning – even if he reversed his decision to boycott the election -the FARC is betting on legal judgements to reinforce its legitimacy and protect its future in mainstream politics. The group is targeting Uribe, who it classifies as an antagonist of peace, while simultaneously seeking the guardianship of the Constitutional Court to protect its right to political participation. So far, the FARC’s political adventure seems to be off to a weak start, and it seriously lacks societal support.
What is more, the perceived lack of government compliance with the agreements it signed with the FARC has affected the ELN’s (Ejercito Nacional de Liberacion) confidence in its ongoing peace negotiations with the Santos government. The left-wing armed group, which was formed in 1964 to fight for land rights and protection of poor rural communities, consequently returned to the dynamics of war after a bilateral ceasefire was violated by both the state and the insurgents. This subject will unquestionably contaminate the already poisoned political debate leading to the legislative elections on March 11 and the presidential elections later in May.
While the policies of former President Alvaro Uribe focused on the fight against the guerrillas, President Santos assumed office in 2010 with a discourse around inclusion and a fight against inequality. For many, the divergence between Uribe’s and Santos’ policies was a surprise and caused divisions in Colombia’s political landscape. Santos’ “third way”, a pragmatic approach that seeks to reconcile a mediated liberal reformism with weak social redistribution, paved the way for the Havana agreements. But what was supposed to be a reconciliation and societal reboot pact has subsequently turned into political and electoral disappointment.
Today the dream of a peaceful Colombia is miles behind, and peace in the country seems to be a mirage.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.