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The Colombian Elections and Prospects for Peace


This is a guest post by Michael Weintraub, Predoctoral Fellow at Yale University's Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence and, beginning fall 2014, Assistant Professor at Binghamton University (SUNY).

On Sunday, May 25, 2014, Colombians went to the polls to elect their next president. Electoral rules are such that if no candidate receives 50% of the vote, a second round (a run-off) occurs between the two candidates that received the most votes in the first round. Given relatively strong showings by “non-traditional” or “third parties” in the election (more about this below) and historically high levels of protest ballots cast for no candidate (“voto en blanco”), no candidate cleared the 50% threshold. The two top vote-getters, incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos (who received 25.66% of the vote) and Óscar Iván Zuluaga (who received 29.26% of the vote) will face one another in a run-off on June 15, 2014.

For those interested in political violence, early warning, and mass atrocities, these elections are of particular importance.

The election took place as the Colombian government pursues negotiations with the country’s oldest and strongest insurgent group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Indeed, the election results can be read in part as a referendum on the efforts of the Santos administration to convince the public that a negotiated agreement to end the five decade-old armed conflict remains possible and will ultimately lead to a durable peace.*

Although the two negotiating parties have reached agreement on three of the six agenda items since talks opened eighteen months ago, and although Colombians broadly support the decision to negotiate, there remains widespread frustration at the slow pace of the talks and disagreement over what role FARC should play in politics going forward. A deeply polarized political landscape has been driven in part by the ever-vocal ex-president Álvaro Uribe---figurehead of Zuluaga’s party and the person who picked the latter from virtual obscurity---who uses his Twitter platform to call Santos a “traitor” and a puppet of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, to argue that a military solution is preferable to a political one, and to claim that the terms currently being negotiated with the FARC (even though they are not public) would represent capitulation to terrorism.

Óscar Iván Zuluaga campaigned in opposition to negotiations with the FARC. Indeed, he stated throughout the contest that he would suspend negotiations until the group met certain key demands, including a unilateral ceasefire, which is a non-starter for the guerrilla. Post-election jockeying for support from the smaller parties has begun, with real consequences for who will win in the second round and, thus, whether negotiations with the FARC are likely to continue. On May 28, the Conservative Party candidate, Marta Lucía Ramírez, appears to have convinced Zuluaga to redefine his position on the peace process: rather than suspending negotiations outright, Zuluaga now says that he would impose more conditions on the FARC to continue the talks. Ramírez received 15% of votes in the first round, so her support could be critical to Zuluaga in the second round. It remains to be seen how this redefinition of Zuluaga’s position on the negotiations will affect his core supporters’ votes in the second round; in the first round they turned out in large numbers to vote despite a scandal in the final week of the campaign that involved attempts to illegally obtain information about the peace process, to help sabotage negotiations. It is also unclear how much Santos will benefit from that scandal as we approach the run-off vote.

President Juan Manuel Santos has been busily courting candidates from the smaller parties as well. Despite the Conservative Party candidate’s official endorsement of Zuluaga, at least forty of that party’s congressmen and congresswomen have indicated they will instead support Santos. Given Conservative Party representation in the Senate and Chamber of Representatives (both around 16%), this is no small matter. Left-wing candidate Clara López, who received approximately 15% of the vote in the first round, has met with President Santos and will define in the coming days whether she will formally support his candidacy. Meanwhile, the Green Party, led by the Enrique Peñalosa (who received nearly 9% of votes in the election) has refrained from officially endorsing a candidate. Key figures in that party---and in other leftist parties---have announced their support for Santos, explicitly highlighting their support for the peace process and underscoring how damaging a Zuluaga presidency would be for peace.

In November 2013, the Early Warning Project opened to its crowd of experts a question about whether the government of Colombia and the FARC will sign a formal peace agreement by January 1, 2015. (Full disclosure: I posted two comments on the forecasting website related to this question.) As the graph below demonstrates, our crowd generally believed that the two sides would reach an agreement by 2015. At its peak, we estimated the likelihood of peace by 2015 to be north of 64%. That optimism waned a bit in the early part of 2014, and hit bottom in early April at just better than 50% (see chart below). Regardless, there has not been a ton of movement in forecasts on this question across the entire period. Interestingly, Zuluaga’s ascent in the polls---as late as mid-March he was polling in third place, with only 14% of support---appears not to have affected the forecasts over the last two months.

Despite the predictions on the opinion pool, I believe that a Zuluaga win would make a successful conclusion to the peace process far less likely, for at least three reasons. First, the conditions that a Zuluaga administration would impose on the FARC to continue the talks would almost certainly be rejected, leading to a collapse of the negotiations. (I believe one of the reasons the current talks haven’t broken down is that the government did not condition talks on the FARC’s upholding a ceasefire.) Second, the relationship between the FARC and a potential Zuluaga administration (which would be composed of ex-Uribe functionaries) would be plagued by mutual mistrust and misperceptions. The FARC’s prior experience helping to launch a political party in the 1980s, which resulted in the slaughter of left-wing politicians, remains salient. Finally, over an eight-year period the Uribe administration did not attempt to reach an agreement with the FARC to end the conflict, instead fervently committing itself to a military-only solution. Given the influence of Uribe to Zuluaga’s candidacy, it is hard to imagine that latter’s policies toward the FARC would differ drastically from those of the former.

Even if a peace agreement with the FARC were signed, human rights violations are likely to continue to occur, for at least two reasons. First, some believe that fragmentation by the FARC in the aftermath of a peace agreement could lead to higher levels of violence: bloques or frentes may be unwilling to give up the drug trade, and would continue operating even after their comrades demobilized. Second, even if a flawless demobilization by the FARC occurred, other armed actors will remain in the field, including but not limited to the left-wing ELN and organized crime groups (“bandas criminales”), all responsible for their fair share of atrocities. Competition over lucrative smuggling routes (e.g. for illegally mined gold, coca, or gasoline) will continue, even as the state expands to consolidate in areas previously controlled by the FARC. This means that homicides may remain tragically and stubbornly high, as they did following civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Despite these continued challenges, a signed agreement accompanied by a well-managed demobilization process would represent a clear and welcome step forward for human rights in the country. Because the 2014 Colombian election is occurring at a crucial moment in time---when peace talks with the FARC have achieved great advances but require further work; when the FARC are arguably at their weakest since the early 1980s (in spite of popular beliefs to the contrary); when the Colombian government has taken tremendous strides to provide reparations to victims of the conflict and to return land to those who were forcibly displaced; and when the choice between candidates hinges on their opposition to or support for peace with the FARC---the outcome on June 15 is highly consequential. Those interested in early warning systems, mass atrocities and the prevention of violence against civilians more broadly would be wise to pay attention to the political alliances forged in the coming days in Bogotá, and to the electoral returns in mid-June. Those returns will either give the green light to continue the difficult work of bridging differences at the negotiating table or will defeat the most promising attempt yet to end the Western Hemisphere’s longest ongoing insurgency.

* It is worth noting that the negotiations with the FARC are being conducted as the conflict continues; no ceasefire has been in place.

Tags:   early warning project

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