Colombia at a Crossroads: The Impact of Presidential Elections on the Peace Process


Colombia is at a crossroads after the results of the first round of the presidential elections. On May 25th, the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, with 25.66% of the votes, was surpassed by the candidate of the Centro Democrático party - Óscar Iván Zuluaga - who obtained 29.26% of the votes. The election could have grave consequences for the future of the peace negotiations that are taking place between the government and the FARC guerrilla group, which started approximately two years ago in Havana, Cuba.

Zuluaga, the candidate representing the political party of former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, announced during his campaign that, if he were to be elected, he would halt the negotiations as soon as he came into office.

In order to analyze the results of the first round of the elections, as well as the consequences of the second round to be held on June 15th, for both the peace negotiations and the several transitional justice mechanisms that are already in place in the country, we spoke to María Camila Moreno, director of ICTJ's Colombia program. The original interview in Spanish is available here

Colombia is at a critical point after the first round of the presidential elections, in which the Centro Democratico candidate, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, received 29.26% of the vote, beating incumbent Juan Manuel Santos who obtained 25.66%. These results had not been anticipated by any of the polls prior to the election. What is your take on the results of the first round and how could they affect the peace process?

The elections took many of us by surprise, in particular the fact that Zuluaga won by almost 500,000 votes. I believe that this result illustrates several things. Firstly, one of the central themes of this electoral campaign has been the peace talks. The race has centered on making Colombians decide whether they truly support a negotiated solution to the conflict with the FARC – in which case they would have to vote for president Santos – or whether they do not believe in the peace process and prefer the option proposed by this right-wing sector, which is going back to a military solution to the armed conflict.

However, new elements have also been introduced into the debate in the past few days. After the May 25th elections, the parties that did not obtain the first two positions had had to define their positions in relation to the two candidates that will participate in the runoff elections. The most significant alliance has been the one made by the Conservative party candidate, Marta Lucia Ramirez, who said that she would support Zuluaga’s campaign but only if he agreed to continue the talks in Havana.

Now, throughout his campaign Zuluaga had been very adamant that if he became president the first thing he would do would be to suspend the dialogues and condition their continuity on compliance with a unilateral ceasefire by the FARC – a condition that would hardly be acceptable to the FARC. After signing the agreement with the Conservative party, he is saying this: I promise to continue with the peace process, but I am maintaining the same conditions.

What is now at the center of the debate is not war or peace, but two discrete models of negotiation. Santos’ model, which is being used to negotiate with the FARC and which will be maintained; and the model proposed by Zuluaga, which he says would be more “open and transparent”, in other words, conditioned upon a unilateral ceasefire, zero impunity, and starting with an assessment of the agreements reached to date.

It is obvious that these conditions could lead to a crisis in Havana.

We have observed the shift in position that you mention, with respect to what Zuluaga has been saying during his campaign. What conditions is he talking about? Do we know exactly the specific points on which Zuluaga would not be willing to compromise?

I would mention at least three fundamental aspects that would make the continuation of the peace talks virtually unviable if Zuluaga came to power. In the first place, he has repeated on several occasions – as have others around him, including former president Uribe – that it is unacceptable that Colombia is negotiating with a “narco-terrorist” cartel, as he calls the FARC. This could mean that right from the beginning he could decide not to accept the agreements made on point 3 of the agenda.

Zuluaga has made similar comments with regard to the agreements reached on rural development, point one of the peace talk agenda. During the initial phase of negotiations in Havana, the sector represented by Zuluaga and Uribe insistently criticized the fact that the government was negotiating the conditions of rural development in Colombia with an illegal armed group.

The fact that the negotiations are being kept confidential and that the details of the agreements reached between the government and the FARC have not been publicized – an approach that I believe is appropriate and has facilitated progress in the negotiations – is also being used by Zuluaga and his followers to cast a shadow of doubt and suspicion on the process and turn the population against the peace talks.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the conservatives have insisted that there can be no peace process with impunity. The Santos administration has maintained that this is not true, that there are no indications or evidence that what is being negotiated in Havana is peace with impunity.

Besides the peace negotiations, how could the results of the presidential elections affect the implementation of the different transitional justice mechanisms that are currently underway in Colombia?

In the worst case scenario, if the negotiations in Havana are broken off, we would return to an escalation of the armed conflict and even greater degradation of the conflict, most certainly with very serious consequences for the humanitarian situation in the country. We would regress to a situation in which we are talking about transitional justice, but with no real possibilities for transition in the near future.

At the same time, we can expect that victims’ rights - the same six million victims that we have today and whose numbers will probably increase if there is a scaling up of the war – will continue to be on the public policy agenda. I do not believe that an eventual Zuluaga administration would decide to eliminate the victims’ rights agenda; I don't think this is very probable.

In the area of criminal justice, I believe that while this Attorney General is in office he will continue to promote what he has been doing so far: context-driven criminal investigations and prosecution of those most responsible for system crimes. The Justice and Peace process will keep going, as I don’t think that is contingent on the change of government. In brief, we would return to the same situation as four years ago, when Uribe was president.

ICTJ recently participated in a series of seminars to discuss the peace talks and address the most complicated issues for achieving a sustainable and lasting peace, such as the political participation of former combatants or alternative sentencing for demobilized combatants. Could you summarize ICTJ’s position on a negotiated solution to the armed conflict and how the political participation of former combatants and alternative sentencing could promote a lasting peace?

I would first have to say that ICTJ supports the position that the ultimate objective of a peace process is the effective reincorporation into society of members of illegal armed groups and their transformation into political movements, giving them the opportunity to defend their ideas and political projects through the electoral process and democratic debate. International experiences have shown that that in most peace processes the non-state actors have ultimately converted into political movements and that democracy has been strengthened as a result.

At the same time, the Colombian state has the obligation to guarantee and protect victims’ rights, and to investigate, prosecute and sanction those most responsible for the worst atrocities.

If the goal is to achieve a fair and sustainable process of transition and set the foundation for peacebuilding and reconciliation, then those most responsible for serious human rights violations must be held accountable before society, and especially before the victims.

Through different mechanisms – truth commissions, criminal prosecutions, comprehensive reparations, and institutional reforms - transitional justice allows societies to recognize the victims, confront the past, and hold those responsible accountable. This means establishing mechanisms that will allow the political participation of former combatants and at the same time guarantee accountability. This balance is obviously not always easy to achieve, but it is possible.

Photo: Colombia President Juan Maneul Santos (right), and Oscar Iván Zuluaga, his challenger, shake hands during a televised debate before the first round of the presidential elections. Bogotá, May 22, 2014. (Fernando Vergara/AP Photo)