On the scale of political earthquakes, the decision by Colombian voters on Sunday to reject – by the narrowest of margins – a peace deal that would have gone a long way toward ending a 52-year civil war in the country, was right up there with the recent Brexit vote in the UK.
With all the machinery of government pushing for a ‘yes’ vote in a plebiscite on the peace accords and the polls suggesting a victory was imminent, the final count, which saw 50.2% of voters snub the deal, has left the government reeling and without a clear way forward.
For Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the man behind the deal with leftist rebels of the FARC, the result was a slap in the face. His administration must now regroup and find a new way forward in a political landscape plagued with uncertainty.
But for another major political figure in Colombia, Sunday’s vote was a huge victory. After two electoral defeats, one at the national level and another on a regional scale, former president Álvaro Uribe had been wandering the political desert. Without financial resources and ignored by the media, the one-time mentor of the current president spent the months leading up to the vote on the peace deal talking at low-key events in villages, universities and theaters far from the razzmatazz of the ‘yes’ campaign.
After Sunday’s result, however, Uribe, president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010, is well and truly back on center stage. And while Colombia’s statutes prohibit him from running for the country’s highest office again, he has made it clear he has an army of loyal followers who would follow him to hell and back, without necessarily letting pollsters in on that fact.
Uribe’s decision to take up the cause of the ‘no’ camp was not enough to defend at first. The international community saw it as a continuation of the toxic confrontational style that had made the former leader so popular in the first place. It was also a position that threatened to derail a peace process that had seen the Colombian government and the FARC actually talking to each other and that had had seen membership of the leftist group dwindle to around 6,000 people.
But the former leader’s key message during the lead-up to the plebiscite – he criticized the peace deal because it would offer impunity to FARC members who recognized their crimes – seems to have tapped into the deep distrust many Colombians feel when it comes to the guerrilla group.
There was, however, little gloating on Uribe’s part after the vote. Instead he aimed for a conciliatory tone. “Colombians, let’s head in the right direction. We all want peace,” he said in a subdued five-minute speech in the wake up of the ballot. During the brief speech, he also hinted he would be willing to participate in the national dialogue instigated by President Santos after the plebiscite, without giving a clear commitment to taking part.
Uribe also called on the international community to listen to the reasons of those who had backed the ‘no’ vote on Sunday and asked that soldiers and police be given a measure of judicial relief, without extending that to impunity.
“We want peace, but not this peace,” said Francisco ‘Pacho’ Santos, Uribe’s right-hand man, and the country’s vice-president from 2002 to 2010.
For Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Sunday’s result was a slap in the face
“We want peace as well but with more justice and more truth. The victory for ‘no’ is a message of love for Colombia and we receive the results with happiness but without arrogance,” Santos said, in comments that show how far Colombian politics has come along in the four years since the peace process began.
“We are going to work with the government to rework this peace deal so that it gets us where we want to be, with justice, reparations, reconciliation and apologies: a peace that we all want and not just half of Colombians,” the former vice president said.
FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez, alias ‘Timochenko,’ also offered a message of stability after the vote. “You can stay calm, and be confident because we want the peace process to move forward,” he said.
English version by George Mills.