On Sunday, Colombians will head to the polls to elect a new president. At play in this year’s election are a range of issues: rampant corruption, Venezuelan migration and high levels of inequality. But another issue looms large: What will become of the country’s historic peace accord?
The election is Colombia’s first since the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as the FARC) agreed to a peace deal that – at least on paper – ended the country’s 52-year armed conflict. Voters won’t only be casting their ballot for a new political leader, but also for a potential new path forward for Colombia and its fledgling peace process.
“This country is condemned to either go back to the past or move toward the future,” said Ariel Avila, subdirector of the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (Pares).
The two leading candidates have very different views of the deal’s future. On one extreme is Ivan Duque, a right-wing politician favored by former president Alvaro Uribe, who has vowed to make “structural modifications” to the accord. On the other, leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, has voiced a desire to push the accord forward, but may lack the political support to do so if elected.
The other presidential hopefuls – Germán Vargas Lleras, Sergio Fajardo and Humberto de la Calle – fall between the two bellwether candidates, but have all pledged to implement at least parts of the peace deal.
Last week’s polls had Duque with an 11 percent lead over Petro. If no candidate gets a majority of the votes on May 27, a runoff vote will be held between the top two candidates on June 17.
The presidential election, however, is just the first step toward ensuring the peace deal’s success and survival. The peace treaty, signed despite having the support of less than half the population, will need to confront political, legal and institutional hurdles if it is to be successful.
A Historic Accord
Shaking hands with rebel leader Rodrigo Londoño, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was all smiles after his government signed a historic peace agreement with the FARC on Nov. 24, 2016.
“On signing this agreement, as president of all Colombians, I want to invite all, with an open mind and open heart, to give peace a chance,” Santos said at the ceremony in Bogota.
A month before, 50.2 percent of Colombians voted to reject the accord in a referendum.
The accord was slightly amended and it later passed in congress by a vote of 130-0 in the Lower House and 75-0 in the Senate (members of Uribe’s party abstained from the vote.)
In October 2017, the accord gained legal protection under the law after Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that congressionallly approved legislation related to the peace deal cannot be annulled for 12 years. While this ensures that the accord will exist in some form not just beyond the next three presidents, it does not protect parts of the deal not yet approved by Congress, Stratfor reports.
The accord, drawn up in Havana, Cuba, over the course of more than three years by members of the Colombian government, FARC, civilians affected by the conflict, and international observers, provided a roadmap of 143 measures for ensuring peace, according to Avila.
These measures include everything from laws guaranteeing political participation to land reform projects.
Fourteen of these measures dealt specifically with “guaranteeing a path to civilian life” for FARC militants, Avila said. The rest sought to rectify “structural causes of violence” through projects like land reform, rural electrification and electoral transparency, he added.
So far, Congress has passed just 18.5 percent of the laws written into the accord. As of August of last year, an estimated 45 percent of the accord’s more than 500 stipulations had been implemented, according to a report from an independent monitoring organization, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
“To the extend that these are not resolved – if land reform is not done, if we don’t undertake political reforms, if we don’t fight against illicit economies – this country is condemned to experience another wave of violence,” Avila said.
Others, such as members of the conservative Democratic Center, balked at the premise of agrarian reforms – warning that doling out unused farmland to landless peasants could lead Colombia down the same path as neighboring Venezuela, which currently faces a deep economic crisis and mounting political instability.
A Polarizing Election
Another challenge the accord faces is waning public interest as candidates spar over other issues, including Venezuelan migration and U.S.-Colombia relations.
While still a factor in the election, the peace accord has not taken center stage in the larger political debate, according to Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“In general, the peace process hasn’t had the type of impact you would have wanted in these elections,” Sánchez-Garzoli said. “It almost seems like Colombia signed a peace agreement – the most important thing in its recent history with tremendous transformative changes – and the candidates are focused on talking about other things.”
The candidates’ reluctance to take a strong stand on the peace accord may be a response to a population that’s simply tired of talking about it. According to a March 2018 poll, just 3 percent of Colombian voters said they believed the peace treaty with the FARC was the top problem for the next president to address. For the majority of the population, healthcare, political corruption and unemployment topped the list of concerns.
The subject of peace, Sanchez-Garzoli said, is a “land mine for politicians.”
“None of the candidates who support the peace accord are going to spend their political capital on [the peace accord],” Avila, at Pares, said. “There are some minimum elements that they are going to support, but as for everything else, they will not go that far.”
Even if Petro, on the far left, were to steal the election from the frontrunner Duque, he would struggle to pass his agenda through Colombia’s more conservative congress, Sanchez-Garzoli said. A number of candidates who had campaigned against the accord won seats in the March congressional elections.
Duque, on the other hand, has indicated that he would restructure the peace accord to eliminate amnesty for members of the FARC, which experts have warned could “put hundreds of former FARC commanders in legal peril and likely lead to flooding the ranks of dissident factions” – potentially setting the stage for increased violence in former conflict areas.
Despite the challenges, there are some early signs in the political sphere that point to progress, as evidenced in the “notable reduction in violence” during the congressional elections. Furthermore, parts of the accord remain protected for at least the next 12 years. However, without a viable political path forward for the peace process, Sanchez-Garzoli said she worries the implementation of the accord could come to hard times.
“Colombia has always been a country known for many, many laws, many institutions, lots of wonderful plans on paper, and very little results,” she said. “Sadly, I think that’s what might happen.