Colombia’s Congressional Elections: What Do They Mean for the Peace Process?

Monday, March 10

Colombia’s Congressional results are in and the pundits are analyzing their implications for the peace talks and for the upcoming presidential elections on May 25.  In yesterday’s elections, some twenty-three hundred candidates ran for 166 seats in the House and 102 seats in the Senate.  Of 32,8 million Colombians eligible to vote, 58% abstained–an increase of 8% from the 2010 elections.  President Santos’s party, the party of the “U”, lost more than half of its seats, but still managed to win the most seats of any party overall.  (For fuller election results, click here.)

As expected, the Centro Democrático party, headed by former President Alvaro Uribe, secured a strong showing with more than two million votes.  Just shy of 15% of the total votes, the party garnered 19 seats in the Senate and 12 in the House.  While this will not be sufficient to block a peace agenda, it could make the pathway to peace a bit rougher.  Santos’s ruling National Unity coalition, which also includes the Liberal Party and the Cambio Radical, is nonetheless well positioned with 46 seats in the Senate and 92 in the House.  With 5 Senate seats each for the leftist Polo Democrático and the Green Alliance, both of which support the peace talks in Havana, Santos should find a favorable Congressional climate for moving ahead with negotiations in Havana, and for the ratification and implementation of any accords reached in Havana.  Still ahead are the presidential elections on May 25th, when, barring a majority vote for Santos in the first round, a second round in June is anticipated.

Peace on the Agenda

When the new Congress convenes on July 20, it will be debating critical issues for the country, including health care, education, judicial and political reforms, and a variety of topics that have already emerged on the peace agenda in Havana.  In regard to the latter, the Congress will need to approve the regulating legislation for the constitutional reforms approved in the Legal Framework for Peace which will dictate the terms for the demobilization and reintegration of ex-FARC combatants into Colombian political life.  Likewise, the upcoming Congressional docket includes other issues that have been under discussion in Havana–namely a statute for political opposition, land reform, and endorsement mechanisms for whatever is agreed to in Havana.  An Uribe-led minority opposition in the Congress could impact a number of these issues, but it is not yet clear how.  Recent polls have found that while a majority of Colombians support the peace talks, most do not support the FARC’s political reintegration into public office.  There is thus a danger that, absent a strong campaign from the Santos government to persuade the public otherwise, Uribe may be able to fan popular sentiment to make it more difficult to achieve a political solution that allows for the reintegration of FARC ex-combatants. 

Twenty-First Round of Talks Ends

The twenty-first round of talks in Havana between the government and the FARC-EP ended on Thursday, March 6th.  The latest cycle, largely superseded by the Congressional elections on Sunday, March 9, and preparations for the upcoming presidential elections,  got relatively little press attention, as there was no joint statement reported out, and no major agreement reached.  Talks will resume on March 20, when the parties will continue to seek agreement on the issue of drugs and illicit crop cultivation.  Initial drafts for a solution on the first sub-point on the drugs agenda were exchanged at the close of the twentieth round (see my earlier post here), and the FARC announced that it has now presented 50 proposals on ten topics related to the issue of illicit crops and drug trafficking. (For a summary of the topics, see here.)  Just before the last round of talks closed, Iván Márquez noted that the peace process is in a “good moment” and “on a good path,” and that the parties are “finding many coinciding positions.”  (See article here.)

Scandals at Home

Recent weeks have been filled with scandals of the sort that often seem to be revealed in the midst of political campaigns, and these, as well as the political pressures of the elections themselves, are having their ripple effects in Havana.  Bogota’s Semana magazine broke two major stories in recent weeks.  The first related to interceptions, presumably illegal, of the peace negotiators in Havana as well as other public officials, including more than 50 mayors.  According to Semana‘s 18-month investigation, on September 12, 2012 — just 8 days after Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos announced the opening of peace talks with the FARC– the Colombian Army set up an intelligence center known as “Andrómeda.”  From these offices, which were disguised as a combination restaurant-computer center in the Galerías neighborhood of Bogotá, active military officials and civilian hackers reportedly intercepted the communications and emails of the government and FARC negotiating teams in Havana, journalists covering the peace talks, and public officials including more than 50 mayors.  (Read Semana story here.)  Even President Santos’s own personal email account was hacked (read about it here).

The Andrómeda scandal cost two top intelligence chiefs their jobs off the bat and generated a few weeks of intense press coverage, during which time numerous committees and oversight bodies– in the Army, the Congress, the Inspector General’s office, and the Attorney General’s Office– were established or revived and investigations launched.  (See article here.)  The Ministries of Defense, Justice, and Technology were charged with establishing a special unit on cyber-attacks, and creating a new presidential advisory commission composed of international and national experts. (See article here.)  The Congressional Commission Monitoring Intelligence and Counterintelligence Activities on Feb. 12 cited the Minister of Defense, the commanders of the Armed Forces and of the Army, and the director of the National Intelligence Agency.   The commission had been set up in the wake of another scandal that broke in 2008 and led to the dissolution of the former intelligence agency–the Administrative Department of Security (DAS)–after the DAS was found guilty of carrying out illegal surveillance and persecution of Supreme Court justices and magistrates, labor leaders, journalists, and political opponents of then-President Alvaro Uribe.

The case raises questions about civilian control and regulation of the military, as well as  the potential of members of the military to play a spoiler role that could undermine the peace process.   Journalist and policy analyst Laura Gil attributed the problem to the lack of a thorough intelligence reform last time round and the failure to vet and remove those who were involved in the untoward activities at the DAS, instead of recycling them to new positions throughout the government.  (Read Gil’s article here.)   The scandal has led other Colombian intellectuals to call for greater controls to prevent future abuses.  (See Alejo Vargas’s view here).

No sooner had this scandal been dispatched to all of the appropriate committees, when another story broke that overshadowed this one.  The second major story related to a massive corruption scandal involving widespread kick-backs on military contracts and diversion of public funds.  (See article here.)  Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos moved quickly to take action—even before the results of the various investigations were in—and sacked the head of the Colombian armed forces and four generals.  (See here.)  It is widely thought that Santos maneuvered the issue to his advantage and used it to realign the military to be more favorable to the peace talks.  He appointed General Juan Pablo Rodríguez as the new head of the Armed Forces to replace outgoing General Leonardo Barrero.  As Commander of the Army’s Fifth Division, Rodríguez oversaw the operation that captured and killed the FARC’s top leader, Alfonso Cano–while secret peace talks were under way.  Rodríguez has nonetheless strongly supported the peace talks in public.

Echoes in Havana

If the wiretaps were an effort to discredit the negotiations, they seem not to have succeeded, at least in the short term.  “The good thing is that if they had found some irregularities, everyone would be talking about the content of what they found.  Instead, everyone is talking about the ‘chuzadas’,” one Colombian diplomat told me in a private conversation in Washington on Feb. 5.

From Havana, nonetheless, FARC negotiator Seuxis Paucias Hernández (“Jesús Santrich”) on Sunday, Feb. 9 said the scandal represents the “state of necrosis” of Colombia’s institutions, including the military forces themselves, and called for an urgent solution to the “chuzadas”.   He underscored that no one is exempt from the intervention of the “dark machinery” of military intelligence, and that the FARC have “nothing to hide.”  (See “Chuzadas“).

Likewise, the FARC have critiqued the corruption scandals of the Armed Forces and attributed responsibility to Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón.   “In a decent government, such an official would have already been removed from office,” FARC spokesman Iván Márquez noted at the March 6 press conference.  (See Farc statement here.)  Responding to an earlier exchange in which the Minister of Defense called on the newest member of the FARC negotiating team, José Benito Cabrera (aka Fabián Ramírez), to come clean about the FARC role in drug trafficking, Márquez maintained that it had already done so, and he proposed the creation of a truth commission “on the transnational capitalist drug trafficking enterprise.”  In a prepared statement, he called Pinzón, whose private agenda in Washington, D.C., had been leaked to the press, a “lackey of the CIA,” and insinuated that Pinzón was benefiting from corruption at the Defense Ministry, and receiving “benefits, gifts, bargains, apartments, and hair gel.”

A few minutes later, Humberto de la Calle, the government negotiator, made an uncharacteristically sharp statement of his own.  (See De la Calle’s  statement here.)  It is  unacceptable for the FARC to become the “the judges of the institutions and their employees,” noted De la Calle.  “Instead of creating a favorable environment for peace,” he said, “the FARC with its inflammatory (desmedido) language is undermining confidence and creating obstacles for the success and work of the Table of Conversations.”  De la Calle added, “These unfortunate declarations of the FARC are distancing us from the goal of peace and reconciliation that we seek in these dialogues,” and asserted that the table will not be converted in a “boxing ring.”

Even while recognizing that statements by negotiators have multiple audiences–including their own constituencies as well as the parties across the table–De la Calle’s message underscores the delicate balance of mutual respect that has been created at the table, and warns that a line was crossed.  It is incumbent when this happens, for each side to step back and take stock if they wish to restore the balance of the relationship.  This is not the first time a line has been crossed.  Recall the FARC’s insistence on a brief “pause” last year after the Colombian government, in what the FARC considered a clear violation of the framework agreement, presented a draft law to enable a referendum on the accords to take place as part of legislative or presidential elections.  In that case, the FARC harkened back to the agreement the parties had made to discuss the issue in Havana, the government negotiators navigated the crisis, and a resolution was found that restored the balance between the parties.  Last week, FARC leader Iván Márquez announced that, although the FARC still prefers a Constituent Assembly over a referendum, they have been discussing the possibility of combining the proposals, and believe they will be able to find a mechanism to endorse a peace agreement that would satisfy everyone.  This suggests that an approach that recognizes when lines have been crossed, and allows the parties to step back and reevaluate, can help to maintain an equilibrium that is more likely to produce mutually acceptable compromises.  It’s all part of the process, but it can be nerve-wracking…

About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
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3 Responses to Colombia’s Congressional Elections: What Do They Mean for the Peace Process?

  1. Norma Inés Bernal V. says:

    Es un camino muy delicado el que sigue pero hay que mirarlo con fe.
    Hay gente muy buena de oposición que puede mantener un debate serio, honesto y responsable.


  2. Pingback: Round #25 Continues in Havana | COLOMBIA CALLS

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