In September 2016, the biggest question in Colombia was by what margin the landmark referendum offering peace between the FARC and the Colombian government would be approved by the Colombian people via plebiscite, effectively closing the book on one of the longest-running civil wars in modern history. With unexpectedly dramatic flair, the referendum failed to pass with 50.2% of Colombians voting against the peace deal. Instead of scrapping the deal entirely, President Juan Manuel Santos sent a modified version to Congress resulting in the implementation of a distinctly fragile peace process. Despite beginning the peace process and receiving the Noble Peace Prize, President Santos’ popularity has nosedived, leaving his Social Party of National Unity (Partido de la U) and others from its centerist coalition marginalized and resulting in politicians distancing themselves from Santos’s policies “so as not to go down with his dismal approval ratings”. To ensure the peace deal continues in its current form, the leading centerist candidate, Sergio Fajardo, must credibly address grievances of rural Colombians without falling into the trap of elite fractionalization, which marginalized President Santos.
The peace deal’s failure in referendum and subsequent implementation by President Santos mean the deal, especially its economic benefits, became a central issue to the 2018 election. The economic criticisms of the opposition, led by former President Uribe, focus on the expense of the deal, which is estimated to be in the billions, as well as the expected underperformance of GDP growth. Like many commodity-rich nations, Colombia’s economy slowed down in 2014 when commodity prices dropped, putting pressure on politicians to create policies which make up for these lost rents. President Santos has promised a 1-1.9% growth in GDP as a result of the peace deal, but economic forecasts do not back up these claims. This, in conjunction with the high estimated costs, would seem to leave the fate of the peace deal in serious jeopardy.
Nevertheless, the peace deal reopens much of the rural, formerly FARC controlled Colombian territory to the international market. These areas have been consistently underserved by the Colombian government’s center-right regimes, particularly by former President Uribe, whose policy choices favored security in urban areas that largely ignored violence into the rural countryside. This allowed urban areas to take advantage of the commodity boom in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s at the expense of rural Colombians, furthering the already significant urban-rural divide. In its current form, the structure of the peace deal significantly benefits rural Colombians, fundamentally reorganizing and restructuring government services to close this urban-rural divide. Moreover, while rural areas were much more in favor of the peace deal, rural voters faced significant challenges getting to the polls, contributing to their lower turnout. Between the narrow plebiscite results and the potential to bridge the urban-rural divide the current peace deal can be re-legitimized by the participation of rural Colombians in the 2018 election.
While elite fractionalization between President Santos and former President Uribe played a tangible role in the outcome of the 2016 plebiscite and has continued to influence Colombian electoral politics, it also provides a window of opportunity for Fajardo’s centerist candidacy. Where Santos and Uribe’s public feud undermined efforts to implement the peace deal, and thus serve rural Colombians, Fajardo has a record of supporting the peace deal through the implementation of its pilot programs in Antioquia, where he served as governor from 2012-2016. Moreover, his unifying rhetoric focuses on increasing investment in rural regions. By highlighting his record of support for rural Colombians as well as former President Uribe’s culpability in the security situation is rural Colombia, Fajardo can present himself as credibly addressing rural Colombians’ legitimate grievances. This would also allow Fajardo to elude the elite fractionalization which delegitimized the plebiscite and President Santos while appropriately attributing responsibility for rural economic outcomes, often a challenge in Latin America.
If Fajardo can credibly address rural Colombia’s grievances, he can avoid the elite fractionalization which delegitimized the peace process under President Santos and ensure the survival of the peace deal.
Ryan Garfinkel is an undergraduate at the University of Maryland.