Peace Pact in the Balance As Colombians Vote

Sunday’s election is widely seen as a referendum on the historic peace accord with the FARC.

A supporter of Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro for the Colombia Humana Party holds a poster during a campaign rally in Cali, Colombia, on June 9, (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)
A supporter of Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro for the Colombia Humana Party holds a poster during a campaign rally in Cali, Colombia, on June 9, (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

Voters in Colombia are set to go to the polls Sunday in a crucial runoff election that could make or break the historic peace accord signed with the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.

The stakes are high for Colombia as it tries to navigate two big challenges. The next president will have to implement the precarious and still-controversial peace agreement — which was earlier rejected in a nonbinding popular referendum — while also figuring out how to deal with the meltdown next door in Venezuela and a flood of migrants coming across the border.

The stakes are also high for Colombia’s closest military and economic partner, the United States.

“Colombia is one of the staunchest friends and allies of the United States,” said Eric Farnsworth, a White House advisor in the Clinton administration who now serves as vice president of Council of the Americas, noting the billions Washington has spent over the last two decades to fight drug trafficking and promote the peace process.

Sunday’s vote has polarized the country. It’s a runoff of the inconclusive first-round vote held in May, leaving right-wing Ivan Duque to square off against left-wing Gustavo Petro. They are a study in contrasts: Duque, a former senator from Bogotá backed by former President Álvaro Uribe, is considered a populist who’s been sharply critical of the peace accord signed with the FARC; Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá, is a former M-19 guerrilla whom critics call a Colombian equivalent of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

The election is widely seen as a second referendum on the peace deal, which netted outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize. Petro says he would honor the deal, which ended the longest-running insurgency in the Western Hemisphere. Duque, the front-runner, wants a tougher stance against guerrilla groups and has been particularly critical of immunity granted to FARC militants convicted of crimes.

“The issue that has really polarized the country is the peace process and the terms of the accord and its implementation,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy think tank that focuses on the Western Hemisphere.

While Duque says he doesn’t want to “shatter the agreement” and just wants to ensure that “peace meets justice,” his stance has raised fears that he could leave the peace pact toothless and possibly even revitalize splinter factions of the rebel group.

Duque has also called for an end to formal negotiations between the Colombian government and the guerrilla group National Liberation Army. Santos has been engaged in negotiations with the organization, the most powerful armed group remaining in Colombia after the FARC’s demobilization.

The vote, and by extension the fate of the peace agreement, comes at a critical time. Colombia has recently seen a marked improvement in stability, which the Santos government attributes to the accord. But those gains seem to be evaporating.

The government has failed to guarantee health, education, and security in many areas formerly held by the FARC, Shifter said, leaving a vacuum for control that other guerrilla groups could exploit. Violence is rising in areas once held by the FARC, with homicides up by 15 percent in former conflict zones since the peace deal was signed as of last year, and dissident elements in the FARC and other rebel groups have grown to include more than 1,000 fighters. Even the FARC has grown disenchanted with the follow-up to the deal, after numerous demobilized rebels were killed by unknown assailants after the peace deal; the FARC’s political wing suspended its campaigning in the 2018 elections.

Despite his lukewarm support for the peace accord, Duque’s policies are more in tune with Washington’s priorities. He wants to take a harder line against the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and favors harsher anti-drug measures, lower taxes, and expanded investment in Colombia’s energy sector.

But his skepticism of the peace deal gives some cause for concern. Although Duque is unlikely to be able to completely gut the deal — it was ratified by Congress — there are fears that foot-dragging in its implementation could allow narcotics traffickers to gain a foothold in formerly rebel-held areas.

Colombia’s decadeslong effort to curb drug cultivation — fueled by billions of dollars of U.S. aid — has not been very successful. It’s still the world’s top cocaine producer, and the United States is the world’s top consumer. A White House report said that cocaine production in Colombia reached its two-decade peak last year.

Still, Duque would be better received in Washington than Petro. “Petro is a former guerrilla, and there is a sense that he would not take the coca issue very seriously,” Shifter said.

It’s not just the drug war that worries many in Washington in the event that Petro wins.

“Fear of Petro is broad-based in Washington,” Farnsworth said. “There is a perception that he simply doesn’t believe in the Western capitalist model, that the economic model he wants to pursue could be identified as consistent with Chavez’s.”

Humza Jilani is an editorial intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @humza_jilani

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