The plebsicite outcome has left many in Colombia wondering: what next? Image credit: momentcaptured1

A few hours after the election two things were evident: the polarisation around the vote and the uncertainty left by the NO victory
On 2 October, Colombia held a referendum which many hoped would see voters say 'yes' to a peace deal recently signed between the Colombian government and the armed group FARC. But Colombia did not celebrate, and the strongest hangover was felt the day after.  

The plebiscite was the democratic mechanism that President Juan Manuel Santos proposed for civil society to endorse the peace agreements. The NO vote won the electoral dispute in a very tight contest against the YES vote. A few hours after the elections two things were quite evident: the polarisation around the mechanisms to settle peace, and the uncertainty left by the NO victory.

Several conditions affected the final outcome of this democratic exercise and the consequences are still unknown. As an attempt to deal with the hangover that democracy has left on everyone, here are some key elements and lessons learned about the relationship between peacebuilding and politics, and its consequences.

One: it was all about a poker move

When Juan Manuel Santos proposed the plebiscite as a mean to endorse the peace agreement, he was making one of his great political moves. By promoting civil society support at peace talks via the referendum, he was avoiding the proposal of the FARC negotiators and the opposition of establishing a constituent assembly. This is a mechanism established in order to modify the very foundations and institutions of the entire political system.

What he apparently did not predict was that the opposition, led by ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez, would arrange a very well organised political campaign around the plebiscite as a strategy to demand his presence within the negotiating team in Havana.

They handled the electoral exercise as a manner of seizing their political capital and demonstrating their strength in this particular context. Just like Uribe Velez, other political sectors saw in this plebiscite the opportunity to make some strategic moves in order to ensure their political future.

The plebiscite was a political maneuver in which civil society participation and peace concerns were minor issues. Furthermore, knowing the long past that Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manual Santos have in common, their egos could be likened to a game of poker where both were competing to be seen as the more powerful and influential. The historical recognition of being responsible for bringing peace to Colombia was a key motivator for both.

Two: apathy, the great winner

The most shocking thing was the low turnout
The most shocking thing about the plebiscite was not that the NO vote succeeded, but the low turnout. Colombia has more than 50 million people and last Sunday 20 million people decided not to vote. Ending war with the FARC guerrillas seemed to be a historical moment. But 62% of Colombians abstained.

This means that for a lot of people, armed conflict and its consequences do not matter - it is practically the same to continue living in a country with war as to live in a peaceful country. Due to this, it is difficult to say whether the YES or NO result would be truly legitimate even though was a democratic result. Perhaps this apathy is the result of an endemic lack of trust in the government, politicians and FARC as well. Abstention suggests civil society is not ready for peace and if that is the case, extending the peace negotiations phase may result in something positive in the longer term.

Three: victims in peripheral regions have a lot to teach about reconciliation and peace building

Rural regions affected by armed conflict overwhelmingly voted yes
The YES vote was overwhelming in those regions where armed conflict has been devastating. Regions that experienced the worst massacres such as Toribio and Bojaya among others voted YES to approve the peace agreements, while the regions at the center of the country voted NO. How can we explain such difference in vote trends?

Over many decades, those communities in the heart of conflict became more resilient due to the intensity of violence they faced. They worked hard at peacebuilding in the midst of conflict. One hypothesis might suggest that these communities show a feasible example of community conflict transformation; they have suffered violence, have recovered themselves and finally are ready to forgive. That process is something people in urban areas cannot easily relate to.

The mistake was perhaps that everyone discussed the content of the agreements, but what the conflict meant in rural areas. With a fuzzy idea about the real consequences and effects of war for people living in remote areas it is impossible to develop empathy, an absolutely necessary condition to settle peace.

Four: everyone has to be included, the spoilers most of all

Juan Manuel Santos’ first mistake was not to include the spoilers and opponents in the peace process. His second mistake was about timing.

The most traditional and conservative sectors of society in Colombia decided to combine forces in order to put the brake not only on the peace deal but on progressive measures that Santos' government was promoting simultaneously with the peace agreements. These include equalitarian marriage, a transformative gender educational approach to eradicate discrimination and bullying, a proposal to allow homosexual couples to adopt children, and tax reforms.

Some of those initiatives were against economic interests, and traditional and religious values. Suddenly they became the touchstones that opposition leaders raised in order to promote false ideas about how the peace agreements were attacking faith, moral and family traditional constitution. Their call was effectively attended by different religious sectors which in Colombia means a lot of votes.

Five: in a divided county, peace with whom?

The lack of trust in the government and FARC leaders decisively divided the population
After so many years of armed conflict destroying the country and leaving behind thousands of victims, extensive support for the peace agreement was expected. However the lack of trust in the government and FARC leaders decisively divided the population.

Before the electoral process this polarisation was evident on social networks where YES and NO supporters attacked each other. The NO votes exceeded the YES votes by only 53,894 votes, a result that shows among other things that peace agreements must also be established between civil society itself.

It would be equally difficult to defend the endorsement of the agreements by a reduced majority. Again civil society in Colombia showed it is not ready to start talking an inclusive language around peace issues and conflict transformation, so the first challenge will be to promote the differences in opinion and approaches without such stark polarisation.

Peace hanging in the balance 

Democracy has spoken and all these elements show the urgent need for a strong,, well-organised civil society capable of keeping the peace momentum going. It is not just about the peace agreements itself, it is about demanding peace as a human right that cannot be postponed for a long period. Otherwise, political forces will be able to delay any possibility of advances at their convenience.

Victims have shown how much they need to settle peace conditions at local level. In the middle of all this uncertainty it remains relevant to ask: who will be at the centre of these peace processes, the victims or the politicians? We can just hope that through understanding and continued work, the hangover may pass.