Colombia’s “Brexit”

CARTAGENA – Peacemaking is always a divisive enterprise – so divisive, in fact, that it is often thwarted by politics within the antagonists’ own camps. That is precisely what happened in Colombia recently, when voters narrowly rejected a laboriously negotiated peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Plebiscites and referenda may seem like the purest manifestation of democracy; in fact, they are a favorite tool of leaders who rely on deceit and mendacity. There is a reason why dictators and autocrats so often embrace them.

Unsurprisingly, Colombia’s plebiscite – like the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum in June – was far from a triumph of democracy. With Hurricane Matthew preventing hundreds of thousands of people from voting in areas where polls indicated support for the deal, only 37% of Colombia’s 34 million eligible voters turned out. In that context, the “No” camp’s razor-thin margin of victory – just 0.4% – is even less compelling.

Yet the deal’s opponents, led by former President Álvaro Uribe, expect to force President Juan Manuel Santos to head back to the negotiating table and produce a radically different kind of peace agreement with the FARC. Considering that the deal overseen by Santos emerged from a highly complex four-year-long process, that expectation is totally unreasonable.