Stakes Are High in Colombia’s Presidential Election

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Not long ago, it appeared conflict-wracked Colombia was finally on the verge of stability. A 2016 peace agreement seemed to have brought an end to the longest-running civil war in the Western Hemisphere — an intractable 50-year conflict between the government and the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as FARC), which led to the deaths of 200,000 Colombians and displaced millions more.

Hopes were high around the world. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was even awarded that year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

But the deal has been controversial within Colombia, with conservatives claiming it ceded too much to FARC. And now, with a presidential election set for May 27, the accord’s future is on the line. And so, perhaps, is Colombia’s.

I spoke with Kristina Mani, an associate professor of politics at Oberlin College and a scholar of South America, who just returned from a research trip to Colombia, about what the rest of the world should know ahead of the vote. The following transcript of our conversation was lightly edited.

Jonathan Bernstein:  What’s the most important thing those of us in the U.S. and the rest of the world should know about the upcoming elections in Colombia?

Kristina Mani:  The most important thing is that the future of Colombia’s historic peace agreement — signed in 2016 after extensive negotiations between the government and the FARC guerrillas — is at stake. 

Currently, the right-wing candidate, Ivan Duque, appears to be the front-runner. He is a protege of Alvaro Uribe, a two-term Conservative president who governed in the 2000s and paved the way for the defeat of the FARC by ramping up a national strategy and military campaign to rout them. Uribe has sharply criticized the peace agreement that was signed by the current president for giving too much ground to the FARC. (Santos’s two terms are up, so he cannot run again.) Uribe remains popular with the traditional political right: For a good number of voters, anyone anointed by him is worth voting for, and Duque is riding those coattails now.

But with that said, Colombia sometimes offers surprises. Polling data has been unreliable in some years — most recently on the plebiscite for the peace agreement. Polls predicted that would pass with substantial support, but then the “No” vote won by a narrow margin, creating a crisis for the government and forcing Santos to renegotiate tougher terms with the FARC.

Bernstein:  What are the alternatives to Duque?

Mani:  This is currently a competitive race with five main candidates. Besides Duque is the left-wing candidate, Gustavo Petro, who has considerable support. Petro is a well-known former rebel from the M-19 group, who has a track record in congress and as the mayor of Bogota. 

The other three candidates are more centrist, and all are seasoned politicians: Germán Vargas Lleras toward the center-right, and Sergio Fajardo and Humberto de la Calle toward the center-left. The candidate most dedicated to keeping the peace deal on track is de la Calle, who was lead negotiator for the government in the talks and probably best understands the issues and weight of the agreement.

The bottom line: This could be a nail-biter through June 17, when a second-round vote would be held if no one wins a majority in May. In a second round, whoever is left out will be called upon to endorse one of the front-runners, and that could be influential.

Bernstein:  Would the peace agreement really be in danger if Duque won?

Mani:  Duque has said he would retroactively alter the peace if he is elected. While legally the peace agreement can’t simply be abrogated by a new government, as a Colombia-watcher colleague of mine said recently, “They can slow-walk the peace” to failure. 

In the electoral campaign, there’s been too much attention to the FARC and their untrustworthiness, which diminishes the many other conflict-resolution components of the peace deal. To make it fully successful, you can’t cherry-pick a peace accord, and frankly Duque (like Uribe) has been more interested in punishing the FARC than in committing to the political and economic costs of a comprehensive peace.

Colombia’s is surely the most comprehensive peace agreement ever achieved in the region, and it’s complex. It involves not only disarming the FARC’s 8,000 fighters and giving the group a seat at the table (literally — it gets five designated seats in both houses of congress until 2026, having reformed as a political party). It also means integrating those fighters (many of whom are young and were forced to be child soldiers) into communities and jobs, providing land and security for marginalized communities, and relocating the 7 million internally displaced people that fled conflict areas.

A truth, justice, and reconciliation process is also getting underway, through specialized courts that will give voice to survivors and try those accused of the conflict’s most egregious atrocities. The whole peace process will take at least a decade, require the government’s sustained support, and cost at least $40 billion (and by some estimates, double that). The truth and justice process alone is likely to reveal uncomfortable associations between armed groups and elites — most recently, there have been revelations documenting collusion between several big corporations and armed groups engaged in illegal activities and human-rights abuses.

Bernstein:  If the peace process slips, how would that affect Colombia’s prospects for healthy long-term economic growth? Duque is supposed to be the most “market-friendly” candidate, but can that fit with renewed hostilities with FARC?

Mani:  A successful peace process would certainly bring greater dynamism to the economy through economic growth and increased investment. In fact, the cost of continued violence is estimated to run about 30 percent of gross domestic product, in terms of lost investment and government and private-sector outlays for security provision. Moreover, as the conflict wound down after 2008, Colombia’s GDP grew significantly, from $287 billion in 2010 to $378 billion in 2014. Those successes have led the country to seek entry to the OECD, the leading club of mostly advanced industrial economies.  

But continued growth is far from guaranteed. Colombia’s export sector is heavily oil-dependent, with about 35 percent of export earnings coming from oil. That was good to boost state revenue and help finance the war effort until 2014, when international oil prices tanked. To date, GDP growth levels haven’t yet rebounded.  

So maintaining the “peace dividend” of growing international investment and trade opportunities will be important. At the end of the day, the material price of peace is far less than that of dealing with the FARC as agreed, especially considering what can be gained from a more dynamic and diversified economy. 

Bernstein:  Could you give us a big-picture summary of where Colombia is now, two years into the peace agreement?

Mani:  The takeaway on the peace agreement is this: If you want to see the peace move forward, you need to see it not just as the end of a conflict but as the beginning of difficult but necessary challenges. Meeting those challenges can produce a more vibrant, participatory democracy and more equitable economic opportunity that is a basis for sustained domestic economic growth.

Getting back to the campaign: Punishing the FARC wins votes — after all, the FARC leadership is hugely unpopular and couldn’t win a single seat in the recent congressional elections in March. If Duque wins, he can capitalize on the anti-FARC sentiment and has relatively little short-term incentive to push forward on all the tougher parts of the peace that require lots of money and political will. So the hope is that he will consider the longer-term benefits of the peace, which most politicians seeking a two-term presidency would likely do.

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