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Colombia has reached a historic deal to end a 52-year war, but the next battle will be at the ballot box

Colombia’s years-long effort to end the civil conflict that has plagued the country for 52 years reached an important milestone on Tuesday, with the country’s government and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reportedly coming to agreement on a peace deal.

“They have a definitive accord to end the war,” Bernard Aronson, the US envoy to the talks, told reporters on Wednesday,
according to The Washington Post.

The details of that agreement will reportedly be announced on Wednesday evening, and though it will be the culmination of years of work, one significant hurdle remains: Getting the approval of the Colombian population in a nationwide plebiscite — a referendum on the deal.

Those opposed and in support of the deal have mounted campaigns to win over Colombians, but sentiments remain mixed. While many support an end to the conflict, others disagree with specific elements of the deal or doubt that it can be successfully implemented.

Getting to ‘Yes’

Once the deal is concluded, the Colombian government must secure approval from in the plebiscite, which must take place within four months of the deal.

In order for the plebiscite to pass, it must get the support of 13% of Colombia’s registered voters, or some 4.5 million people, and the “Yes” votes must outstrip votes for “No.” While a “Yes” victory would not change Colombian law, it would ensure legitimacy for the accord, show popular support, and provide strong assurances that what was agreed upon will be implemented.

The plebiscite would be binding on only the president, and while its failure would not mean the peace process has to end, a “No” victory could be a debilitating blow to peace efforts, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.

The government likely wants to convene a vote before the end of October, when it has said it would sent to Congress a tax-reform proposal seen as essential to financing post-conflict programs. In order to make the four-month timetable (which is still uncertain), the government will be obligated to release the details to the public as soon as possible.

Several issues have become sticking points for the time of the plebiscite. FARC leadership still has to present the deal to the group’s members for ratification. The rebels have been reluctant to begin disarming and moving into designated concentration zones before a national vote is held, out of fears that if it is voted down they could be left vulnerable.

Moreover, the sides have haggled over the timing of an amnesty law that would apply to the rebel group. FARC leaders have said there will be no final deal without it, while the Colombian congress must still decide what crimes the amnesty applies to.

The government has been working to inform the public about the deal, relying in large part on the country’s TV and media companies.

Colombia Reports, an English-language Colombian news outlet, has called the news and opinion segments of said media companies “notoriously inaccurate and biased, and could end up confusing rather than informing the public.”

Polls regarding the plebiscite have largely shown public support for the deal but have not dispelled doubt about the outcome.

A survey conducted earlier this summer found that 80% of respondents knew little or nothing about several central components of the deal.

Some surveys conducted throughout the first half of August found “Yes” and “No” votes roughly tied, with “No” leading in some cases. A Gallup poll released on August 17 found “Yes” voters well ahead, with more than two-thirds of respondents who said they would or would likely vote telling pollsters that they would vote “Yes.”

Anna Szterenfeld, the regional manager for Latin America at the Economist Intelligence Unit, has remained optimistic.

“We still believe that negotiations will be concluded soon, and that this, along with the government’s significant campaign resources, will be enough to secure approval of the peace agreement in the plebiscite,” Szterenfeld told Business Insider in early August.

“The logistics of the plebiscite — that only 13% of the electorate need vote ‘yes’ for the agreement to be approved — will also make this easier,” Szterenfeld added.

‘A lot of people are not happy’

The government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who leaves office in 2018, will have to overcome a number of hurdles to secure the “Yes” vote it needs to implement the peace deal.

The government will have to win over Colombians who doubt the FARC will adhere to its commitments or that the government can eliminate the social and economic conditions that led to the conflict.

It must also sway those Colombians in urban areas, largely unaffected by the conflict, who have been more focused on economic conditions and have proven ambivalent about the peace process.

Santos himself has had low approval ratings in recent months, with his support falling to an all-time low in May.

An August survey found that 65% of Colombians disapproved of his management of the peace process and that 76% of his countrymen did not back his management during the first two years of his second term in office. Dissatisfaction with Santos, the underperformance of the economy, and a vociferous “No” campaign have all helped push down public support for the deal in recent weeks.

“A lot of people are not happy with either … some portion of the peace agreement and the condition of the economy,” Szterenfeld told Business Insider in July. “Confidence is very low. So it’s not a so surprising that his approval ratings are so low.”

‘Yes to peace, but not like this’

While many signs indicate that the “Yes” vote on the peace deal has the advantage, those opposed to the deal have made a concerted effort to defeat it at the ballot box.

The central figure in the campaign to defeat the referendum has been Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president from 2002 to 2010, under whom Santos served as defence minister and constructed the campaign against the FARC that helped force the rebel group to the negotiating table in 2012.

Uribe has argued that the deal made by Santos’ government will allow FARC leadership guilty of crimes like child recruitment, terrorism, and murder to largely avoid punishment. Uribe has led a “civil resistance” campaign that has launched signature drives in Colombian cities.

The opposition campaign has zeroed in on the potential for FARC leaders to avoid jail time as a talking point, with some senators saying they will continue to fight the deal even if “Yes” wins the plebiscite. Uribe has said that Santos is “handing the country over to terrorists,” and the “No” campaign has been using the slogan, “Yes to peace, but not like this.”

“We cannot accept impunity for these crimes,” Rodrigo Quiñónez, a retired general opposed to the deal, told The Christian Science Monitor in June. “They have to submit to Colombian law and pay for what they have done.”

Uribe’s critics and proponents of the peace deal have charged him with hypocrisy, as he presided over an administration that not only saw rampant human-rights abuses by the military go unpunished, but also allowed demobilization of right-wing paramilitary groups with relative impunity for the crimes they committed. (Uribe himself could face jail time for his role in fighting the FARC in the 1990s and 2000s.)

Another concession that opponents have seized on is the plan to allow former FARC members to hold seats in congress.

The details of that are yet to be decided (and rebel groups have been allowed to hold office in the past), but Santos himself has referred to it as a “toad to swallow.”

The possibility that opponents could make the voting a referendum on Santos himself, or that confusion, pessimism, and ambivalence among Colombians could drive down turnout, leave open a chance that the accord could fail to be ratified.

‘It’s like jumping off a cliff’

Among the public, sentiment about the deal and prospects for peace are widely mixed.

Santos, who wants to get a deal and plebiscite done before the end of the year, has proposed delaying the final resolution of some issues until after the voting. That, coupled with some demands made by the FARC, has cost the peace process some credibility, Szterenfeld told Business Insider.

“The subsequent timeframe for the implementation of the agreements is now more uncertain … raising more risks for the sustainability of the peace settlement,” Szterenfeld added. “The plebiscite campaign is also likely to deepen social polarisation and political divisions surrounding the process.”

Some victims of the war have been vocal supporters of the deal.

“The reason for this is victims don’t want what happened to them to happen to others. You wouldn’t want anyone to go through what you’ve had to suffer,” Alan Jara, who was held for more than seven years by FARC rebels and now leads the government body tasked with reparations for victims, told the Associated Press.

Others who have suffered during the conflict are not content to take the deal in question.

“But the FARC are a bunch of assassins and jail is the very least the guerrillas should get for all the suffering they have caused to so many people,” said Alba Gomez, one of the roughly 7 million Colombians displaced by the fighting. “Without that, there’s no peace.”

Despite solid support for peace among Colombians, for some of them, imagining peace after 52 years of war is a struggle.

“It’s like jumping off a cliff,” Gonzalo Sanchez, director of Colombia’s National Center for Historic Memory, told The Christian Science Monitor. “Colombians have never known their country at peace so they can’t imagine it.”

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