Trying to Make Sense of the Colombia Referendum

On Sunday evening, I was watching returns from the historic Colombia referendum come in across my screen. Polling in the lead up suggested that “Yes” was going to win, and comfortably at that. It didn’t. Carrying 50.2% of the vote, the less than 38% of Colombians who took to the polls rejected the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels that would’ve ended a fifty years war.

Western journalists expressed their disappointmentย in immediate reaction. This was a peace deal backed by both sides of the conflict, the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Secretary of State John Kerry. The “Yes” side ran an aggressive campaign, Bono was playing concerts in support of the deal, and the polls made it seem that the result was all but a foregone conclusion.

For a deeper account of the conflict between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels, Stephanie Nolen at The Globe and Mail provides a painstaking account on why Colombian people may have chosen to vote the way they did. The BBC provides the Sparknotes version. Nolen goes in to much more detail than I intend, but there are a few aspects to this result that are worth discussing briefly.

Firstly, speaking strictly with regard to polling, there is little reason to trust it of late. We saw it with Brexit. We saw it when 538 gave Bernie Sanders less than a 1% of carrying Michigan in the primaries and he proceeded to do so by a comfortable margin. I’m not sure what methodology was used on the Colombian referendum, but polls predicted a “Yes” victory by a 2-1 margin, and they missed the mark badly. Pollsters have it tough and this isn’t meant to be a hit piece on them, but on some of the more high-profile votes of recent memory the results have been mixed to put it mildly. As a citizen, just go and vote as no lead in the polls looks to be safe with any complete certainty.

With this being said, Colombia’s low turnout may well be attributable to Colombians’ deep distrust in political institutions. It was far easier to Monday morning quarterback, for instance, younger Brits who would’ve voted for “Remain” if they bothered to take to the polls at all. Large swathes of them didn’t, and all of Britain paid the price for it.

Colombia is an altogether different animal. Most of the people see the government as corrupt, and this prompted them to abstain from voting. And for those who did decide to vote, their distrust likely influenced a “No” vote for the peace deal. They didn’t believe the two sides would hold up to the deal they hashed out. Neither side boasts the best track record in the honesty department.

Other “No” voters thought the deal was too lenient on the FARC rebels. How were they entitled to seats in representative governance after years of engaging in warfare that was often at civilians’ expense? Of course, FARC will retort that the government and paramilitaries have killed scores more along the way, and has backed U.S. funded death squads in the past, and that without FARC the poor subsistence farmers of Colombia would have no voice whatsoever. My intention here is not to pardon one side more than the other, nor should we be too quick to draw a false equivalency here either as the history is far more nuanced than this short reaction piece allows, and for that matter I am not an expert on Colombian history and politics.

But the point, and Nolen hits on this more than anything else, is that for many Colombians this was a difficult decision–certainly one that was less straightforward than the simple question of whether they wanted a war to end or not. The majority that voted, quite apparently, felt that the alternative to war was too risky. And the vote was, once again, driven by a deep distrust for the two factions sticking to their word and the feeling that the deal would let the rebels off without adequate justice being served.

So I think the response of dismay that has swept across the West in the aftermath of the vote may not fully appreciate how complicated this vote was for Colombians. It bears repeating: it isn’t as if the choice was simply war or peace, and they made the moronic decision to choose war. This depiction of Colombian voters insults their intelligence, and frankly calls into question our trust in democracy at large. If one espouses democracy up and until the point one doesn’t get their way, then they would seem to have never been a democrat (with a small “d”) at all.

However, this is not to say that the result isn’t a bitter pill to swallow. Provinces that have been hardest hit by the conflict voted “Yes,” and quite emphatically at that with rural Choco coming in at 80%. In the town of Bojaya where a church bombing took the lives of 119 people, that number came in at 96%. So it appears that those who have been caught in the crosshairs of the conflict the most overwhelmingly desired for it to end, and now that won’t be the case. Comparing apples and oranges a little, but it reminds me of the Scottish Independence referendum, and how it was Glasgow, and its poorest sections in particular, that backed it the most only to of course lose out in the end.

I’m not sure where it goes from here. You had a center-right president and a Marxist-Leninist rebel group put their respective legacies on the line in hopes of compromise, and after 4 years of negotiations it was the unlikeliest party of all that didn’t endorse the deal they crafted: the people. I’m sure they will publicly state that they will continue to try and work together to strike a deal that everyone is comfortable with endorsing, but it is equally possible to imagine a situation where they are branded as sell-outs by more extreme factions in their ranks who will drive their followers further away from cooperating with one another.

What happens next is unclear. We may look back on this result as a good one if negotiations lead to a richer agreement–perhaps one that the Colombian people deem to be fairer with respect to compensatory mandates and justice. It could just as easily go down as a chance squandered, a deal that could’ve brought peace to the regions of Colombia that desired it the most.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Terry Lewis says:

    I don’t know enough about the situation to know how accurate your assessment is, but it reads well, and thank you for this informative post

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Patrick Baga says:

      Thanks for the response Terry. I’ve tried to follow the developments casually over the last couple years, but it’s definitely not a situation I’m too well-versed in either. Nonetheless, from my vantage point, the vote pitted the desire for accountability (perhaps more crudely, the thirst for vengeance) vs. the practicality of ending conflict. And the lurking variable I suppose being that many people were skeptical that either side would uphold the agreement. Tried to stay pretty objective in the assessment but I think it’s almost certainly a regrettable outcome when you consider the people living in the conflict regions wanted the fighting to stop. It’s not as if they don’t desire justice, or in its baser form, revenge as well, but they weighed the cost-benefit and voted accordingly. It appears those who don’t have to deal with the conflict directly were more readily willing to hold out for something better without having to absorb the day-to-day ramifications of the decision. Time will tell.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. arwen1968 says:

    I’m not sure who you are (and I haven’t got time to look it up now)… or why I you even showed up in my Reader :)… but this seems to me pretty much spot-on and well-written to boot. Although I’m not an expert on Colombian politics either. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Patrick Baga says:

      Haha just someone who tries to keep up with political developments around the world ๐Ÿ™‚ Appreciate the kind words and hope you enjoy the blog – Patrick


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