Act Twenty One – The fallacies of a referendum: FARC Peace Accord rejected by Colombian voters

“And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness”, wrote English scholar Alcuin in a letter to French Emperor Charles the Great in 798 AD.

Alcuin’s 1200-year-old aphorism couldn’t be more relevant in 2016. A referendum held on 23rd June paved the way for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union after 51.9% people voted in favour of “Brexit”. On 2nd October, voters in Hungary overwhelmingly (98.3%) backed the hardline anti-immigration stance taken by their President Viktor Orban, who is firmly against the European Union’s asylum relocation policy. However, a low voter turnout  (43.9%) invalidated Orban’s referendum result. In all probability, if a referendum were to take place in India right now, a majority of its citizens would vote to blow up neighbouring Pakistan into tiny little smithereens.

So the question arises: Should ordinary citizens be entrusted with the power to make major policy decisions? Let us take the case of Colombia as an example.

Two days ago, voters in Colombia narrowly rejected (50.2%) the peace deal struck between their government and the left-wing rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The rejection of the peace agreement by the Colombian people came as a huge blow to President Juan Manuel Santos, whose government spent 4 painstaking years to negotiate the deal with FARC’s top leadership.

An embarrassed Santos put up a brave face when he appeared in public for the first time since the collapse of the deal on Monday. “I will keep seeking peace until the last minute of my term,” he said. “With the will for peace from all sides, I am sure we can reach satisfactory solutions for everyone soon”. In a similar tone, FARC’s Commander-in-Chief Timoleon “Timochenko” Jimenez said that he will “remain faithful” to the momentous agreement signed by the two parties.

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The peace accord struck last week promised to finally end the 52-year-old war between the Colombian government and the Marxist rebels which left more than 2,00,000 people dead.

The deal was supposed to grant “partial amnesty” to the FARC rebels in exchange for laying down of arms on their part. FARC would also get 10 reserved seats in the country’s Parliament up till 2022, irrespective of which political party comes into power. The government also agreed to offer “development assistance to small-share landholders” in several backward areas of Colombia as part of a larger rural upliftment reform demanded by the FARC rebels. Several other measures were also announced by the Colombian government which would help these rebels integrate seamlessly into the civil society.

However, the Colombian voters would have none of it. The rejection of the peace accord clearly reflects the anger that the locals still harbour against the FARC revolutionaries whose war against the government left millions of Colombians displaced over the past half a century. The FARC rebels leave behind a legacy of bloodshed, fear, intimidation and utter devastation – memories of which are deeply etched in the hearts and minds of the ordinary Colombians.

So what happens next? For President Santos, there is no alternative solution to the FARC problem. He remains adamant on renegotiating the Peace Accord and presenting the new draft to the Colombian people for their approval. Critics, however, point to a deeper malaise that afflicts the Colombian society – no matter what the terms, a majority of the Colombian people will never be able to embrace the rebels as their fellow citizens. What was supposed to go down as a historic moment for modern-day Colombia, has quickly turned into a major source of embarrassment for the present government and an opportunity lost for achieving lasting peace.

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