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Could Colombia’s Election Kill Its Peace Process?

Oscar Iván Zuluaga has vowed to axe talks with the FARC if he wins. But can he really follow through?


Colombia’s presidential campaign is in its final days before run-off elections on Sunday, June 15, and as the contest winds down, it has become clear that the fate of the two peace processes that have been spearheaded by President Juan Manuel Santos hang in the balance. An election marked in an earlier phase by dirty politicking and mudslinging — with mutual accusations over narco-financing and wiretapping (complete with authenticated audiovisuals of efforts by challenger Oscar Iván Zuluaga’s campaign to undermine the peace process) — has suddenly blossomed into a debate about more substantive issues, including peace. And now each candidate is jockeying to play the peace card to his advantage.

Formal talks have been underway with the hemisphere’s oldest guerrilla group — the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) since late 2012. The peace process, which has been advancing steadily since Santos came into office in August 2012, may well be his most significant, if incomplete, accomplishment. And it has continued even against the specter of its unceremonious end. On June 10, Santos announced that secret meetings with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) have lead to the initiation of long-awaited exploratory talks for the "common purpose of ending the conflict and building a country in peace and equity."

The threat of the election derailing the slow, but so far promising, peace effort is real. Zuluaga, who has taken a hard stance against the talks, won handily in the first round, with 29.3 percent of the vote to Santos’s 25.7 percent — the three other candidates were eliminated. An unprecedented 59.9 percent of eligible voters boycotted the polls — a sign of what the regional hemispheric democracy-promoting Organization of American States electoral observation mission report called "a sign of citizens’ serious disenchantment with the political system." But even if Zuluaga wins, there is reason to think that the promise of finding peace might not be lost.

On May 26, the morning after the first-round votes were tallied, a newly emboldened Zuluaga — an avowed disciple of ex-President Alvaro Uribe, who oversaw the renewed militarization of Colombia following the failed peace process a decade ago — announced that as soon as he was inaugurated on Aug. 7, he would decree a "provisional suspension of the talks in Havana." For them to continue, he said, the FARC would have to "cease all criminal actions" and agree to a "verifiable and permanent cease-fire" before talks would resume. He also insisted that some FARC leaders would have to serve jail time, a condition that FARC has always refused and that is considered by many a deal breaker. Zuluaga, like Uribe, has now reaffirmed his view that in Colombia there is no armed conflict, only a terrorist threat.

The peace process, however, has become a much more visible issue than it was in the first round. Santos’s campaign had resisted adopting a slogan on peace, seeking to insulate the peace process as much as possible from electoral politics. But the hard line that Zuluaga has drawn has brought it into the fore of Santos’ pitch. "Neither history nor the new generations would forgive us" if we fail to bring the peace process to fruition, Santos said on May 28. His allies — including a newly launched Broad Front for Peace that unites most of the left, and the five major labor confederations — have recently presented the election as a referendum on war and peace, even while maintaining distance from the social and economic agenda they’ve frequently clashed over. Many, it seems, fear a return to the days of Uribe, when speaking about peace and a political solution earned them persecution and stigmatization as guerrilla sympathizers. The left is giving its all to ensure a Santos win.

Colombia’s last peace effort with the FARC, under President Andrés Pastrana, broke down 10 years ago and left the public highly disillusioned. This, the fourth attempt, has been marred by a weak communications strategy that has created a wide rift between the negotiators in Havana and the Colombian citizenry.

Although the delegations in Havana have taken some flak for moving too slowly compared to other peace processes, they have been advancing at a steady, reasonable clip for almost two years. No one has stood up from the table and the parties have completed 26 rounds in Havana and reached agreements on three of the five major issues driving the the conflict: agrarian reforms, political participation, and illicit crops and drug trafficking. The remaining issues — victims and the terms for ending the conflict — are slotted to be addressed when the parties reconvene following the elections.

On June 7, the delegations in Havana issued a ground-breaking joint declaration of principles for addressing the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition. The declaration promised that there would be no impunity for crimes committed and that victims will be at the center of the process in determining the measures for satisfying their rights.

With 220,000 dead, six million displaced Colombians , and an average of 14,000 new displacements per month, according to the United Nations, satisfaction of victims’ rights will be a daunting task. The newly agreed principles should help the parties move through the remaining substantive issues on the agenda before they turn to the question of how an agreement would be ratified by the public and implemented in the territories.

As Santos solidifies his defense of the peace process, Zuluaga has deftly sought to sidestep the confrontation on peace and avoid being cast as the war villain. Forty-eight hours after he called for the suspension of the peace talks, on Thursday, May 28, Zuluaga modified his position. The move, which Santos called "cynical" and "electorally driven," was part of Zuluaga’s effort to woo Conservative Party candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez and the two million voters who supported her presidential candidacy in the first round.

In a programmatic pact between Ramírez’s Conservative Party and Zuluaga’s Democratic Center, Zuluaga pledged that his government would "continue talking with the FARC in Havana, but would lay out a series of "conditions and deadlines that guarantee tangible, definitive, verifiable advances with international accompaniment." The pact calls for an immediate public evaluation of the first three agreements that have been reached in Havana and a series of "gestures for peace" from the FARC: the immediate end of child recruitment, the use of land mines, "terrorist attacks against the population," war crimes, and attacks against infrastructure. For the talks to proceed, these measures would have to be completed within Zuluaga’s first month in office. Then the parties at the table would be required to meet a government-set deadline for completing the negotiations.

Ironically, many of the Zuluaga camp’s demands address the humanitarian concerns of the broader Colombian populace and these issues are already on the peace delegations’ agenda. As part of the confidence-building gestures in 2013, the FARC announced its decision to refrain from kidnapping and the statistics on this practice have come way down. In the recent joint agreement on drugs, the FARC have also promised their support to the government to assist with the de-mining and crop eradication, among other things.

Still, the two camps have vastly different approaches to the peace process that dictate different measures for the conflict’s resolution. What Zuluaga calls terrorist acts, Santos underst
ands as acts of war in the context of an internal armed conflict. The former demands strong militarized responses and the latter a political solution. Santos has accompanied the peace talks with an accelerated military strategy that has struck down dozens of FARC leaders, including members of their Secretariat.

The candidates also favor different negotiating strategies. Zuluaga is insisting on a series of pre-conditions that ex-President Ernesto Samper has called "unfillable." Years of efforts to attain peace by setting pre-conditions through the "microphones" — i.e. making unilateral demands in the press — have not proven to be successful in Colombia and could well preclude ever getting back to the table. Santos has had more success in getting concessions once the parties were at the table. Likewise, Santos has favored a protected, insulated process that would submit the results to public scrutiny once the accords are finalized. Zuluaga and others charge that the process lacks adequate transparency and has promised to subject all agreements immediately to public scrutiny.

Lastly, the Santos and Zuluaga campaigns have different understandings of the nature of a peace table. For a peace process to work, the parties must come to the table as equals. Although the FARC has been hard hit in recent years under both Uribe and Santos, it has not been defeated. With both the government and the FARC acknowledging that neither side can win the war militarily, the parties in Havana have been negotiating from a position of equals at the table — considered to be the only way that peace negotiations can be successful. With a military stalemate, the FARC and its constituencies are not likely to accept an approach that forces it into submission and does not respect the principle of equality at the table.

The history of Colombian peace processes in the last three decades shows that with each new president comes a new approach to the war, with the pendulum swinging between peace and war. On Sunday, June 8, in an interview with El Tiempo, Zuluaga was asked if he would respect the agreements reached in Havana thus far. Zuluaga responded that he felt no obligation to comply with them, though he would review them. "There is a principle that the president  repeats every day," he said. "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Here there is nothing."

It takes time to nurture a common vision for the country and to generate a climate of mutual respect in a negotiating process. Without these things, a peace accord has little chance. It would be a travesty if all of the work in Havana comes to naught.

What is clear is that while this Sunday’s election may be a referendum on the peace process, it will not necessarily be a referendum on peace. We don’t know how much of the population will be voting based on the issue of war and peace. Polls consistently show that other issues — unemployment, urban crime, health care, poverty, and education — are more likely to drive votes. Nonetheless, polls also show a majority of Colombians favor a peaceful settlement. The public is tired of war, particularly in the rural border zones where violence is worst. In those areas, Santos prevailed in the first round.

The Colombian peace process enjoys broad international support and accompaniment from Norway, Cuba, Venezuela, and Chile. The just-announced process with the ELN would have the added support of Ecuador and Brazil. The international community, which has encouraged peace as the best path forward and as critical to economic growth, regional stability, and international security, should be clear in its message. The time for peace is now, regardless of the outcome of the elections.

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