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The Politics of Peace

The Politics of Peace

February 23, 2018 | For just over a year, Colombia has been in the process of implementing a peace accord signed in November 2016 between the government and the country’s formerly largest armed guerrilla group, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Implementation, however, has not proven an easy task. Now, only 18.3% of the agreement has been successfully carried out. With this in mind, one might expect 2018 to bring a year full of legislation and constitutional amendments concordant with the accord. Unfortunately, this scenario is far from likely as the country enters an intense electoral season that will culminate in the seating of a new president and as many as 268 new legislators.  

Though it was not an election year, implementation of the accord in 2017 was already marred by political disputes. A “fast-track” mechanism to provide legislative agility was supposed to speed up implementation of the agreement so that all provisions could go into effect between June and November 2017. Instead, congressional stalling and political maneuvering delayed huge portions of the carefully negotiated settlement.

As it was written, the accord stipulated its passage to occur in one block of reforms. However, in May 2017, the Constitutional Court modified the fast-track mechanism and allowed Congress to debate the accord point by point and pass each piece individually. This rendered the implementation mechanism far less efficient than anticipated and paved the way for immense political stalling.

As a result, only the parts of the accord that were most convenient for legislators have moved forward. For example, the pieces of the agreement that were necessary for the demobilization of the FARC and the laying down of the group’s weapons were passed early on, whereas projects that require investment in structural change were postponed. The first point of the agreement, which addresses one of the fundamental underlying issues of the historic conflict by proposing provisions for structural land reform in rural areas of the country, has been largely stalled. Only 6.9% of this reform has reached completion throughout the fast-track period. As the OIAP (Observatory for the Follow-up of the Agreement's Implementation) points out, legislators have been more focused on the “termination of the armed conflict” than on the actual “construction of a stable and lasting peace.” The more partisan provisions that would require structural changes have lapsed in priority.

This process of pseudo re-negotiation not only derailed the implementation of a peace deal that was meant to transform Colombian society and bring peace after over 50 years of war, but also allowed politicians to grab political clout by siding with or against the implementation of the accord. To great extent, politicians had already seized this chance the year prior when the plebiscite on ratification of the peace accord pitted the “Sí” votes against the “No” votes. The six months of debating the accord piece by piece in Congress further allowed legislators to get in on the grandstanding and other figureheads to make their positions better known. For example, President Juan Manuel Santos’s Vice President, German Vargas Lleras, not only resigned from his position in May to ready himself for the presidential race, but just months later aligned himself and his party with the anti-accord camp to completely separate himself from Santos’s pro-accord legacy.

Now, as the country enters the long cycle of campaigning ahead of legislative and presidential elections spanning the spring, the politics surrounding the accord grow more pernicious, furthering potential to derail implementation. The legislative elections will demonstrate which candidates will have the electoral muscle to progress toward presidential elections, and the results of the presidential seat are crucial to the peace accord’s next steps. Even though the accord has been given “armor” that legally protects it for the next 12 years, the President of Colombia ultimately decides whether to give Congress the resources necessary to approve and enact associated legislation. Thus, whoever wins the election this June (when the runoff election most likely will occur) can effectively endorse or impede the peace process at his or her will.

It is absolutely critical that peace is not lost in the discussion over the next several months. If it is and an anti-accord candidate is elected, it could mean a reversal of the progress made so far and certainly a drag on the momentum to move forward. It also would not bode well for the multiple other peace negotiations that are currently occurring in the country, including with the second-largest guerrilla group that has yet to demobilize, the ELN (National Liberation Army). With the 101-day ceasefire between the government and the ELN this past October 2017 through January 2018 combined with the initial steps of FARC accord implementation, Colombians began to notice a difference in their daily lives. Candidates campaigning locally, for instance, celebrated that they were able travel to remote areas in former “red zones” without fear of running into guerilla militants for the first time ever. Since the end of the ceasefire on January 10, however, the country has already seen a return to violence with the ELN, demonstrating the fragile nature of these negotiations. If FARC accord implementation stalls at the current position, the structural changes needed to achieve lasting peace will not occur and the country will likely revert to renewed conflict.

The people in power must pay increased attention to the social and economic aspects of the accord instead of just the political and civil ones. Peace will not be sustainable without a focus on the countryside and local politics, especially in rural areas where the Colombian state has historically been absent. Structural issues in Colombian politics and society must be addressed. The elected legislators and president must press for economic development, infrastructure, and other cross-cutting issues that will ultimately determine how well the accord works to improve the livelihoods of Colombian citizens. These themes are at the heart of the peace accord, but they must also be examined outside of that context to be effective. Studies show that Colombians, looking toward elections, are more worried about unemployment, corruption, health care, and a whole host of other issues than they are about the peace accord. The people are so focused on issues that affect them so acutely that they are now prioritizing such issues even over expelling military actions in the countryside.

With the level of polarization that exists in Colombia right now, including the wide range of partisan views represented among the 15+ candidates now campaigning for president, 2018 could be the year that makes or breaks peace in the country. The international community overwhelmingly views the Colombian experience as a success story, without recognizing that peace is still far from certain. Colombia is not post-conflict yet, but it could be eventually if a leader is elected who prioritizes integral, long-lasting peace for the country. Next year will determine where the country will go from here.

Megan Kelly is a recently returned Fulbright Recipient who was stationed in Colombia and is currently a Program Assistant at the National Endowment for Democracy. Her views do not reflect that of the NED.


Any views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.

Photo by Marco Suárez [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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