For Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, congressional elections on March 9th were an important signal that “the overwhelming majority of Colombians want peace.”
Mr Santos, who supports efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with the country’s FARC guerrillas after 50 years of conflict, saw his National Unity coalition keep its majority in the lower and upper houses of Congress.
In fact, the vote mirrors the torn feelings of many Colombians, who support the talks but are uneasy about the possibility of an amnesty for FARC fighters.
Reflecting those qualms was the solid showing of a new party created by Álvaro Uribe, a former president who has assailed the government for its talks with the FARC. Uribe practices a personal brand of politics. He feels deeply betrayed by Santos, who served as his defence minister, was elected president largely thanks to his endorsement, and has subsequently reversed many of his policies.
Uribe has claimed that government negotiators are offering the guerrillas impunity for their crimes, which include kidnapping, torture and murder. Uribe’s own father was killed in a kidnapping attempt by the FARC. Santos has said impunity has never been on offer, but that negotiators are seeking alternatives to prison as part of a transitional-justice program.
Santos launched the talks with the FARC in 2012, and is hoping to have a deal by the end of this year. The two sides have already reached draft agreements on rural development and political participation for minority parties. Issues like transitional justice, demobilization and reintegration of ex-fighters remain. A referendum of some sort will be held to endorse any deal; Congress will then need to adopt detailed implementing legislation.
This is where Uribe will hope to thwart progress. His right-wing Democratic Centre party won 19 of the upper house’s 102 seats, making it the second-largest political force after Santos’s U Party, which won 21 seats. That gives Uribe, who now has a Senate seat himself, a more powerful platform to oppose a deal. (He did less well in the lower house.)
Santos is still in a strong position. The governing coalition, which also includes the Liberal and Radical Change parties, maintains solid control over Congress. On votes related to peace talks with the FARC, Santos will probably be able to count on support from the leftist Democratic Pole and Green Alliance, which each won five seats, and perhaps from the Conservatives. The Democratic Centre’s strong showing in the Senate is unlikely to be repeated in the presidential elections to be held in May. Uribe’s handpicked candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, has so far failed to rally much support. Barring an upset, Mr Santos will win another term.
Even so, the congressional vote suggests that the president will find the going tougher as the price of peace becomes clearer. That is probably healthy. Most Colombians seem caught between the desire for peace and reluctance to forgive the FARC’s terrible crimes. Uribe’s intense presence in Congress means there is no chance that a settlement with the FARC would simply be rubber-stamped.