Colombia has seen an upward trend in democracy according to Freedom House scores, and much of its recent progress can be attributed to a reduction in conflict stemming from the peace agreement with the FARC. However, the relationship between the peace agreement and democracy is not necessarily clear-cut.
Politicians in Colombia and across the world have made competing claims about the effect of the deal on Colombia’s democracy. Many Colombians take a negative view point to the peace agreement as represented by the rejection of the deal by the majority of voters in a referendum, and these concerns deserve to be explored. However, a contextualized vision of the peace agreement reveals that it is an example of democratic consolidation rather than erosion.
Who are the FARC and what are the roots of the conflict?
The FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is the largest group of rebels in Colombia. Founded in 1964 after over a decade of conflict known as La Violencia, the FARC lives on today. La Violenica originated in a partisan divide over power between the Liberals and Conservatives that culminated in the assassination of the Liberal Party leader Jorge Gaitán in 1948 and led to rampant instability.
After La Violencia the FARC rose as the armed wing of the Communist Party, and claimed to fight for the rights of the impoverished farmers of the countryside. Over decades of fighting the FARC has largely targeted government officials and security forces, though many civilians have been killed and the group often targeted infrastructure. Over 220,000 people are believed to have been killed since the conflict began in the 1960s. The war between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels arose out of the failed attempt at democratic consolidation in the 1940s-1960s.
Peace talks that began in 2012 between FARC leaders and the Colombian government were stalled for years because of the historical context. Decades of war left neither side willing to negotiate. Questions of political integration and atonement for past crimes plague the process, as democracy proved to be a negotiable asset and also a potential deal breaker.
The role of the referendum
Democratic philosophy, or at least the classical theories of democracy such as Schumpeter or Dahl, focuses on the relationship between the state and its citizens. Dahl’s definition specifically centers on the responsiveness of the state to its citizens preferences, and Schumpeter also emphasizes responsiveness through the mechanism of competitive elections. Oftentimes, responsiveness to citizens proves relevant for social concerns, but what about responsiveness to warfare or treaties?
Colombia gives us a direct example in the form of a referendum on the peace agreement, presented to the citizenry in early October of last year. After Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC leaders signed the deal, it was put to the public and rejected by 50.2% of the population.
The next attempt at a deal did not face a referendum. In late November of 2016, the rebel leaders and the Colombian government reached a new deal. This version remained remarkably similar to the October attempt. The difference? No referendum given to the public this time around.
Rather than put the agreement to a vote in the general population, the leaders of the Colombian government sent the deal to congress. Members of the opposition decried the move as a “blow to democracy.” Although hyperbolic, the fact remains that the Colombian government made use of a “democratic procedure,” legislating through congress, to subvert the October referendum.
In one sense, this is the picture of a “Frankenstate” to use the terminology of Kim Scheppele, or perhaps the “stealth authoritarian” presented by Ozan Varol. The Colombian government made use of democratic mechanisms of governance to avoid the possibility of another failed referendum, substituting indirect for direct democracy. Despite the worrying possibility of avoiding responsibility to the people of Colombia, I judge this episode to one of democratic consolidation through undemocratic means.
Why jamming through the peace deal benefits democracy: inclusion of the FARC
Although rammed through procedurally in methods that are indicative of democratic erosion, the peace deal ultimately benefits democracy in Colombia. First, the conclusion of this agreement likely ensures a greater degree of stability in the region. Second, the peace deal allows the FARC and their supporters to reenter the political scene.
Democracies are intuitively less stable when violence flares up in the region. It should be doubly obvious that political violence, including the targeting of government officials and subsequent crackdowns by government forces that have characterized the conflict, inhibit democratic governance. At one point in 2002 the FARC even kidnapped a presidential candidate. General instability that impacts democratic processes like freedom of speech, association, and even electoral processes in addition to targeted political violence negatively impacted Colombian democracy for decades. This peace deal potentially removes that impediment to democracy.
The revival of the FARC as a political party may be the most positive indicator that passing the peace deal consolidated democratic governance in spite of its somewhat antidemocratic circumstances. In exchange for disarmament former FARC members are able to participate in Colombian society, including in politics. The transition to peace has been complicated, and remains so to this day as the legal minutia are delayed in congress.
Nonetheless the FARC have constituted a political party that plans to run in 2018. Supporters of the FARC should have a legitimate option in the polls in 2018. Additionally, the deal guarantees seats in congress for the FARC. Through bolstering pluralism and enabling wider participation in government, the peace deal improves Colombian democracy if implemented properly.
It would be naïve to think that this peace deal will immediately salvage democracy from decades of war and strife. The “no” vote on the referendum for the peace deal in 2016 demonstrates the division in Colombian society on the question. A string of killings in the months after the agreement was reached, combined with delaying actions in congress, could halt the deal.
What’s important to remember is that the antidemocratic context of the peace deal does not determine its legacy. The peace agreement exemplifies democratic consolidation through undemocratic action. It should limit violence in the long run and include a larger percentage of the population under the umbrella of Colombian democracy.
*Photo by Germán Cabrejo, “Protesters Gather to March Against the FARC” (Wikimedia Commons), Creative Commons Zero license.