The Colombian presidential election last month was won by Iván Duque of the Democratic Centre (DC) party with 54 per cent of the vote. Álvaro Uribe Vélez – the party’s leader, the former president of Colombia (2002-10) and currently a right-wing senator – couldn’t run himself because he has served the two terms permitted by the 1991 constitution, but nevertheless continues to dominate the political agenda. He spearheaded the successful ‘No’ campaign in the 2016 referendum on the Havana Accords signed between the government and Farc rebels, and has now propelled Duque, a rather uncharismatic 41-year-old with practically no political experience, into the presidency.[*] Although 50.2 per cent of voters rejected the Havana Accords in the plebiscite, President Juan Manuel Santos succeeded in getting a renegotiated accord through Congress in December 2016 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end five decades of armed conflict. The accords are now being implemented: Farc has disarmed under UN supervision and formed a new political party, the Alternative Revolutionary Force of the People (still known by the acronym Farc). But the peace is fragile. Colombia’s peripheral regions, such as the underdeveloped Pacific coast, were hit hardest by the conflict. These regions voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum and supported the leftist candidate for president, Gustavo Petro, who stood for the coalition movement Human Colombia (HC). But the wealthier, more populated regions, including the coffee axis and the province of Antioquia, have more electoral muscle: they voted against the Havana Accords, and for Duque.
The DC’s ‘No’ referendum campaign relied heavily on scaremongering, accusing Santos of giving the country over to the Farc and of castrochavismo, and alleging that the Havana Accords would spread homosexuality in schools. These narratives were recycled in June, with new rumours targeting traditional, religious voters: Petro, it was said, engaged in satanic rituals, planned to close thousands of churches and would ‘expropriate’ private property.
Uribe founded the DC in 2013 after Santos began peace negotiations with the Farc. Santos had been Uribe’s minister of defence and Uribe backed him for the presidency in 2010. But once in office Santos stated officially that there was an internal armed conflict in Colombia, rather than what Uribe had insisted on describing as a ‘terrorist threat’. (Uribe had tried and failed to negotiate with the Farc.) The suspicion is that a sense of betrayal lies behind his obsessive opposition to the peace process, which has polarised the country.
Duque has promised to revise the peace accords, but the election did not turn only on the issue of peace: it also had a great deal to do with the candidates’ differing political and economic visions for Colombia. Petro promised change: the creation of a welfare state with free education and healthcare; environmental protections; continued commitment to the Havana Accords and negotiations with the ELN (the last remaining guerrilla group, currently engaged in talks in Havana); a broader peace-building project backed by civil society; and the promotion of democratic diversity. His proposals were supported by various Colombian academics, social movements, activists, indigenous organisations, victims’ groups, trade unionists and politicians from the left and centre. But his past as a member of a guerrilla group, the M-19, demobilised in 1990, worked against him, as did his record as mayor of Bogotá, when he was criticised for administrative failures. Colombia’s conservative majority, conditioned by the Cold War, fears any hint of left-wing politics. Duque, emphasising his youth, also promised modernity, especially for business, but he is backed by traditional elites, who do not want real social change.
Petro’s HC movement won more than eight million votes, 41.8 per cent of the electorate. It was the first time the left had come so close to victory. Several of its previous candidates have been assassinated: Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, Jaime Pardo in 1987, Luis Carlos Galán in 1989, Bernardo Jaramillo in 1990. Petro’s votes were obtained without the aid of political ‘machinery’, as Colombians call vote-buying and clientelism. The turnout was far higher than the establishment expected. Petro, like Jeremy Corbyn, is a phenomenon in his own right, and will now lead the opposition in Congress. It is likely that support for him will continue to grow.
A two-party model has prevailed in Colombia since it became independent in 1810. But this is changing: the Conservative Party has gone into coalition with Duque, and its leader, Marta Lucía Ramírez, will be Colombia’s first female vice president; the Liberal Party also backed Duque. There seems to be an appetite for a centrist candidate as well as one from the left: in the first round of elections on 27 May, Sergio Fajardo, a former academic, got 23.7 per cent of the vote, only just behind the 25 per cent which put Petro into the final round. Fajardo, like Petro, was an independent candidate representing a coalition movement.
What will happen to the peace process now? Its main weakness has been the lack of support from the hard right. Santos represented one section of the Colombian elite, but he failed to get Uribe’s backing for the negotiations. If the DC now decides to pose as the saviour of what it has claimed is a flawed deal, this could secure the peace. But there remain several causes for concern.
Most important is drug policy. The Havana Accords agreed a comprehensive solution to drug trafficking, with three pillars: voluntary eradication and crop substitution for coca-growers; treating drug consumption as a public health issue rather than a criminal offence; and dismantling drug trafficking networks. Implementation thus far has been disappointingly slow, but Duque wants to scrap these measures in favour of forced eradication, including aerial spraying with glyphosate, and increased militarisation, supported by the Trump administration. This means a return to the war on drugs, which most analysts agree has been a disastrous failure. New wars are brewing, especially on the Pacific coast, where power vacuums left by demobilisation of the Farc are being filled by mafia gangs and the Mexican Sinaloa cartel. Drug-related violence looks set to rise.
Duque claims to support the reintegration of rank-and-file Farc members into society, but is unhappy about its former commanders going into politics. He is likely to extradite some of them to the US on drug charges, and create obstacles for the ten Farc congressmen and senators elect, who are due to take up their seats on 20 July. Attacking the leadership of the emergent party will have an impact on security. Several mid-level ex-commanders and rank-and-file ex-guerrillas are rearming, in response to a recent spate of assassinations of Farc members, and a feeling that the government is not fulfilling its promises. The Farc leadership has announced its willingness to talk to Duque, but his government may struggle to reach an agreement with the ELN, the remaining guerrilla group – it was sceptical of the Santos government’s will to implement the accords, and will view a hard-right government with greater mistrust. Duque, meanwhile, has promised to impose onerous conditions before beginning talks.
Another concern is the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-Repetition proposed in the Havana Accords. This stipulated the foundation of three new institutions, which are just coming into operation: a truth commission to hear victims’ testimonies; a search unit to investigate the whereabouts of the disappeared; and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), created to investigate human rights and war crimes carried out by all parties, not only the Farc.
This hybrid system offers alternative sanctions, including restricted liberty but not jail for those who comply fully with truth-telling to the JEP, and up to twenty years in prison for those who refuse to admit their responsibility. Colombia is the first country to create a transitional justice system under the Rome Statute, and the International Criminal Court has been supportive of its model. However, the DC has played on its supporters’ resentment of the Farc’s violence, knowing that many of them wish to see its former commanders in jail. Duque has promised to make changes to the JEP, especially the rules around Farc veterans going into politics – he claims they should only do so once they have been investigated and served any sentences, a requirement which would effectively decapitate the new party.
There are legal limits to the modifications Duque can make to the JEP, and to other aspects of the Havana Accords. Santos tried to make the accords state policy, and thus independent of changing governments. The constitutional court has ruled that they must be respected and implemented during the next three presidential terms. The international community supported Santos’s peace policy and pledged millions to finance the post-conflict phase; it will pressure Duque to guarantee continuity. It’s possible, however, that his government could suffocate the new institutions by reducing their funding and, perhaps more worryingly, by discrediting the narratives about the conflict that emerge from the transitional justice mechanisms. One key issue is the role of state and para-state actors in human rights violations, especially that of Uribe himself, who is a figure of interest in multiple investigations, accused of involvement in massacres and forced displacement in collaboration with paramilitaries.
The other contentious issue in the Havana Accords is the Comprehensive Rural Reform package. Santos argued that the peace process was not only about demobilising the Farc; it sought to guarantee non-repetition by addressing major inequalities in rural regions. The accords propose structural transformations: roads, schools, healthcare, agricultural modernisation and new economic opportunities. Petro promised to support all this, and went further: for the first time, the protection of biodiversity became a major electoral issue, becoming so popular that Duque was forced to incorporate it into his own manifesto, though his economic model prioritises oil and coal exploitation by large companies.
Behind the rural reforms is the concept of "territorial peace": the idea that the regions of Colombia were affected differently by the conflict, and that local communities should be able to help decide their own development solutions. Innovative participatory planning exercises are underway, but implementation depends on political will. Duque is unlikely to support any change to regional power balances or the empowerment of local communities, and will limit any serious redistribution of land.
All this presents challenges to civil society. Duque, in his victory speech, promised to unify Colombia. He has a congressional majority, but when he takes office on 7 August, he will face staunch opposition led by Petro. A growing body of opinion, with international backing, will defend the Havana Accords. Many social movements that had opposed Uribe’s government began, under Santos, to work with the state on the peace policy. One challenge will be to keep these channels open. Under Uribe, many political and social movements were persecuted. Under Santos, new pro-peace citizenship movements emerged. It is essential to keep this developing democratic culture alive.