Peace and the Presidential Elections in Colombia

May 24, 2014

It is widely expected that tomorrow’s presidential elections in Colombia will result in a run-off election on June 15th between the incumbent President and National Unity candidate Juan Manuel Santos and Democratic Center party candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga.  With just hours left before the polls open, Santos and Zuluaga are neck and neck in the polls, which show the two as significantly ahead of the other three candidates.  Failure of any single candidate to garner a majority in tomorrow’s elections ensures a run-off election next month.  The absence of a clear front runner and a spate of scandals involving the top two polling favorites (see my prior post on this topic) make this a difficult election to call.

What Will the Results Mean for the Peace Talks?

The next president is likely to preside over the signing of a peace deal and its ratification by the populace, to provide leadership for many of the legislative initiatives that will be required for the implementation of any agreements reached, and to oversee the translation of the accord into measures that respond to the particular contexts of Colombia’s diverse territories.

La Habana, Cuba, May 16, 2014 (Foto: Omar Nieto Remolina)

Parties Announce Agreement on Drugs. La Habana, Cuba, May 16, 2014 (Foto: Omar Nieto Remolina)

Much of the heavy lifting with the insurgents has been done.  Progress toward an agreement to end Colombia’s internal armed conflict has been advancing steadily since peace talks were launched in late 2012.  With the latest agreement on drugs, added to the agreements on rural reforms and political participation reached last year, the peace process with the FARC is now more than half way home. Peace talks will resume June 1, when pending issues include victims and the terms for ending the conflict.

While a Santos win assures continuity at the table and should open conversations with the other guerrilla group, the ELN, a Santos loss would not necessarily pull the plug on the peace talks.  The moment is ripe for peace and it would be difficult (though not impossible) to change direction.  All of the candidates have now come out in favor of the peace process.  The legacy of ending half a century of war is an attractive incentive for any candidate coming into office. (See my earlier discussion on campaign positions on the negotiations in Havana here.)

The unfolding scandals involving charges of wiretapping and other dirty dealings by the Zuluaga campaign seemingly directed at undermining the peace process are a reminder that there are nonetheless those who would like to see the peace process sabotaged.  Andrés Fernando Sepúlveda, who worked for Zuluaga’s campaign, hacked the email accounts of President Santos and the negotiating teams in Havana, and was selling information obtained illegally, including from military intelligence.  A video and audio recording, authenticated yesterday by the Attorney General’s office, confirm Zuluaga’s prior knowledge of these activities and record a meeting between  Sepúlveda, Zuluaga, and Zuluaga’s advisor, former OAS Ambassador Luis Alfonso Hoyos, in which Sepúlveda briefed the others on his activities.  Sepúlveda has been arrested but these scandals raise disturbing questions in the last days of campaigning and it is unclear if and how they will affect the electorate, the upcoming elections, or the peace process.

Presidential Debates

In televised presidential debates held on Thursday and Friday (May 22 and 23), the candidates discussed their positions and showed some differences in their preferred approaches, particularly on the question of a ceasefire and pursuing a military solution while negotiating peace.  Santos and Zuluaga exchanged barbs and called on each other to come clean regarding the charges against each of their campaigns. (See my earlier post for details.)

President Santos praised his negotiating team in Havana and the recent progress being made, lauded the FARC’s willingness to disengage from narcotrafficking, and underscored his successes against the FARC on the battlefield.

Oscar Zuluaga, exPresident Alvaro Uribe’s hand-picked heir, has been careful not to oppose the talks publicly, though he has said that he would require certain conditions to support their continuation and has made no secret of his distrust of the FARC, which he noted in one of the debates, “have always tricked the Colombian people in all negotiation processes.”  Zuluaga has insisted on the need for a verifiable ceasefire and that all criminal actions would be stopped–a somewhat unspecified condition that might prove hard to enact.  Zuluaga signaled his willingness to reduce some guerrilla sentences, but not for human rights violations, and challenged Santos for not walking from the table over a particularly heinous report of FARC torture and killing of two policemen two months ago.  The arrest of the hacker may erode some of Zuluaga’s support.

Green Alliance candidate Enrique Peñalosa reaffirmed his support for the negotiations and for pursuing simultaneously the military defeat of the FARC.  He criticized Santos for announcing the latest agreement on drugs just before the elections, a move he suggested politicizes the talks.

Conservative party candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez underscored that the conflict will need to be ended at the negotiating table, and insisted that the FARC will need to suspend recruitment of child soldiers and stop using land mines.  She has said that, if elected, she would supplement the government’s negotiating team with her vice presidential candidate Camilo Gómez, a former negotiator in Caguán.  This new addition could create some tensions, but we have seen that the process has survived and been strengthened by the integration of new members of both teams.

Finally, Democratic Pole candidate Clara López said she would maintain the peace process in Havana, but that “you can’t keep negotiating in the middle of the war,” and she called for a bilateral cease-fire.  It should be noted that the FARC (and recently the ELN) have declared cease-fires on three occasions since the beginning of talks.  It has been the government of Colombia that has resisted the cease-fire.  The current unilateral ceasefire declared jointly by the FARC and the ELN for the elections is due to end on Wed., May 28.

Any incoming new president or newcomer to the talks will need to learn –and learn quickly — that negotiations will not be effective if one party insists on making unilateral public demands of the other through the press.  This is a clear lesson from past peace processes and from this process.  Likewise, newcomers will need to take into account the careful work that has been done thus far.  In the current peace process, there is already a framework agreement signed by the parties in August 2012 that articulates the goals, methodology and road map for the process.  Relationships and content have been negotiated within a framework of what is most likely to end the internal armed conflict, address the roots of the conflict, and ensure that peace is sustainable.  This has meant a slow transformation at the table of the “us versus them” mentality that underpins the war effort on both sides.  The current teams in Havana have learned to work together toward common outcomes.  If Santos should lose the elections, it will fall to the teams in Havana to socialize any newcomers to the process and approach.

Support for the Process

While peace has not polled highly as an electoral issue in Colombia, statements of support for the peace process continue to flow into Colombia from civil society and governments around the world.  On April 29, 50 U.S. churches wrote to President Barak Obama and Sec. of State John Kerry urging them to be more vocal in their support of the peace process with the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and to encourage negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), to shift U.S. aid priorities toward peace, and to emphasize victims’ rights and especially the needs of internally displaced persons (see the full text here).  Likewise, in addition to the letter of support for the process from 245 U.S., UK and Irish Congresspeople I mentioned in my earlier post, on May 21, twenty-three French senators, representatives and councilmen and women issued a “Manifest for Peace in Colombia,” which welcomed the decision of the Colombian government and the FARC to pursue negotiations, and encouraged them to address the “deep causes of the conflict, such as social inequality, the usurpation of peasant lands, the violation of human rights, and the demands of the populace for democratic participation.” (Read their letter here.).  Finally, following the announcement of the May 16 agreement on drugs, U.S. Sec. of State Kerry congratulated President Santos and Colombia for the latest peace process advance on the drug issue. (See Kerry’s  statement here.)

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.
This entry was posted in Colombia, Elections, Latin America, Peace, Peace Process, peace processes, peace talks, War, Western Hemisphere and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Peace and the Presidential Elections in Colombia

  1. Jennifer Schirmer says:

    Hi Ginny,
    Any news about my question in changing my chapter title?
    Let’s hope Santos wins en la 2nda vuelta!
    All the best,



  2. ben saifer says:

    It seems to me that the general sentiment in the country is one of despondence. Let´s see whether we can glean any information from the electorate on that matter; el voto en blanco appears to be a popular option…


  3. Pingback: Hips Don’t Lie | The Llama Diaries

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s