Colombia: the Problem with Referenda

By Chris Sinclair

Referenda have always been a tool used by governments to attain a mandate or enforce a decision, and are usually considered an excellent tool for direct democracy. But they are subject to influences by the media and vocal individuals, and do not always result in a decision that is wisely or thoroughly considered for the country as a whole.

In the June the UK held a referendum over whether we should continue our membership of the EU. A narrow “Leave” vote clinched it and by next March article 50 will be triggered to terminate our membership by the end of 2019. To many politicians and economists this is a mishap, a nation cutting itself off from the world’s largest free trade zone. But the people have spoken; and it’s not a life or death situation we are dealing with. For one South American country, a referendum on October 2nd 2016 certainly was of such significance.

For 52 years Colombia has been dealing with a bitter, gruelling guerrilla war between three forces; The Colombian government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos and backed by the US and UK amongst others; Right-Wing paramilitaries, funded by the drug trade; and a loose band of Communist armies, the most prominent being FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The conflict’s roots sit deep in the Cold War, following the assassination of the Liberal party Leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, in 1948 which prompted a decade of political unrest and violence called “La Violencia” during which Liberal and Colombian Conservative supporters battled, resulting in the deaths of almost 200,000 people. After this violence, Liberal partisans fractured into supporters of either the new “National Front” coalition government or to communist rebels. This resulted in the asymmetric war we have today – three sides all fighting for control of one nation.

FARC have by far been the most infamous of these groups. With around 10,000 troops they have employed widespread use of landmines and mortars to ambush targets, causing vast civilian casualties and huge, long term damage to infrastructure. Landmines are still a huge problem today – 11,000 people have been killed by landmines alone since 1991. It was therefore in the government’s interest to end the war as soon as possible and that required a peace process.


In red are FARC controlled areas.

Since 2012 the government and FARC have been in peace talks, hosted by Cuba, and finally in June 2016 a ceasefire was agreed between the two sides. Under the conditions FARC would become a political party at the cost of removing landmines and helping deal with the illegal drug trade – a salient problem in Colombian society. The ceasefire and peace agreement needed ratifying with a referendum, which would naturally be pushed through without difficulty and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity to Colombia.

50.2% of voters had something else in mind. When it came to the public ballot on the 2nd October, the ceasefire was rejected. Most arguments against it were the same; FARC needed to compromise more. Many did not want to see them rewarded with political status and the benefits that brought, and wanted them punished as criminals. The yes voters, and Colombian government – and to some extent the rest of the world – were dismayed. But the result couldn’t be ignored due to real fears of another uprising . And peace talks continue in the hopes of a resolution being reached in the future.

Maybe the decision would have been different had the turnout been better.

It was 38%.


President Juan Manuel Santos (centre) with rival group leaders at the peace agreement signing.

Measly even by referendum standards – appalling considering the importance of the decisions being made. Effectively the referendum was hijacked by the most ideologically convicted voters who passionately wanted FARC punished and would go to the trouble of heading to their nearest ballot box to do so – a difficult task for many in rural areas who are most affected by the conflict.

The Colombian referendum exposed a serious flaw with referenda. Turnout issues are not just faced in Colombia; in the UK, prior to 2016 the average turnout was 56%. If so many people are content with letting other people make the decisions why not leave it to the elected officials? The officials who are elected to represent them, to literally be their voice and advocate, are also there to act in the best interests of the nation. It is undoubted around the world that the failure of the peace deal referendum was a tragedy. People will keep dying, drugs will keep dominating the South American scene and flooding into western countries to appease the ravenous demand, and the government will always be occupied by the threat of FARC and their affiliated organizations until peace is formally reached.

Currently FARC and the government are reviewing hundreds of proposals put forward by the no camp, headed by former President Alvaro Uribe who is advocating heavy repercussions against FARC. Until these proposals have been discussed and reviewed no further progress will be made towards peace – this could take months or even years. Peace is a long way away, and if another agreement has to go to a referendum, we’d better hope the yes camp wins.

This is a life or death decision, both for the individuals who vote and the nation of Columbia itself.


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