On March 9th and May 25th, Colombians will vote in a new Congress and president, respectively. These 2014 elections are essential for defining the political map of the country but also crucial for the future of the peace process, which officially started in 2012 between the Santos government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The positions of the various political parties with regards to the peace process are distinct, and the results of the elections will affect, partly or considerably, the progress of the peace negotiations taking place in Cuba.
In Colombia’s recent past, several administrations have tried to deal with problem of the guerrilla insurgence through peace negotiations, a strategy that has seen some successes and some failures.
In 1986, the government of Belisario Betancourt attempted talks with the FARC and the ELN (The National Liberation Army) that resulted in a preliminary agreement. Former militants succeeded in forming a civilian political party (the Patriotic Union — UP), and indeed, saw its members killed specifically for the party’s success.
In the following presidency, that of Virgilio Barco, talks were advanced with the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the Quintín Lame Movement, and the M-19 urban guerrilla group that managed to ensure a more peaceful transition into non-violent democratic politics for the former rebels. The M-19 Democratic Alliance even participated in the 1991 Constituent Assembly, which produced the Constitution currently active today.
Renewed peace talks with the FARC failed under ex-President Andres Pastrana (1998-2002), perhaps due to a lack of leadership, and the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Velez distinguished itself as the only one in the past several decades to come out strongly against the concept of peace talks. Still, other advances toward a diplomatic end to the armed conflict took place in the meantime. Gustavo Petro is probably the most prominent example of a peaceful transition to politics, as the former M-19 guerrilla managed went from various legislative positions to the Bogota Mayor’s Office, elected to the second highest executive position in Colombia in 2011.
Petro’s recent removal from office by Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez over alleged irregularities in the conversion of the city’s garbage collection contracts to public services comes in the context of the latest round of peace talks with the FARC, and highlights the longstanding issues surrounding political participation for former illegal militants. The situation comes at a bad time for the peace process, and does not help the government in its current negotiations. The FARC delegation in Cuba has already come out against Petro’s removal from office, using it as evidence that the Colombian government cannot guarantee a path to civilian politics for the rebels, one of two topics around which the parties have managed to come to an agreement thus far.
As history shows, the question of political participation is the most important and the most delicate debate in any peace process, because it serves as one of the few incentives to bring armed combatants toward demobilization. Political participation, moreover, is a fundamental human right, as protected by international conventions (such as Article 25 of the 1966 International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 23 of the Inter-American Human Rights Convention) as well as the Colombian Constitution (in Articles 40 and 93).
So far, both the rebels and the current government seemed to have learned from the past, though. The rebels have not left the negotiating table due to the Petro incident, and the government knew enough to prioritize participation as a discussion topic. In that sense, the upcoming elections are particularly volatile.
It’s clear, for example, that there are at least two main stances toward the peace process represented in the upcoming congressional and presidential elections. President Juan Manuel Santos is running for a second term in office, based largely on the promise of a positive outcome to the peace process he initiated. His U Party, as well, has placed the continuity of the peace process at the front of its congressional campaigns. Santos’ main competition, then, represents a significant break from the current environment. Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the candidate for former President Alvaro Uribe’s Democratic Center party, said in November, “Upon being elected, I will leave the peace negotiations with the FARC initiated by Santos.” With the ex-president himself leading the party’s ticket to the Senate, the Congress, as well, is subject to a shift in thinking.
Should the “Uribista” movement win the presidency, negotiations with the FARC will be aborted completely. A strong showing in the Congress, meanwhile, could also carry significant implications for the peace process. The armed conflict has been destroying Colombia for more than 60 years, claiming between at least 220,000 lives between 1958-2012, displacing 5.7 million people (15% of the population) causing the disappearance of more than 50,000 others, and costing the Colombian government $11 billion per year in military spending alone. Even the Uribe movement agrees that ending the conflict is the single greatest priority for expanding the Colombian economy and improving the country’s democracy.
The central question in these elections, then, is whether negotiation is the way to peace.