More and more, it is clear that 2017 will be a turning point in Colombia’s history, for good or for bad. The implementation of the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will begin, while presidential campaigns for 2018 will also start.
While both issues are constantly in the headlines, there has been little effort to understand how implementation will affect political predictions for 2018, and vice versa. While likely upcoming scenarios do not paint well for the peace agreement, at International Crisis Group, in a recent report, we believe that all is not lost if implementation makes important progress.
The outcome of the plebiscite on 2 October strengthened the opposition, especially the Democratic Center (CD) party, a dissident Conservative Party (CP) wing against the government, and Christian churches, despite the extremely close result.
After the renegotiation process, Congress ratified the new peace accord using pre-established majorities, while the opposition continued completely united against it. The effect was that the balance of power created by the plebiscite result has not changed.
Today, though, the agreement itself is no longer the topic of discussion, but instead its implementation. The FARC are making progress to the cantonments to leave their weapons behind, despite numerous logistical issues.
Politically, corruption has also become a hot point, but when it comes to election time, the issue will likely lead to universal finger-pointing and accusations that may not significantly affect voting. At the same time, former CD Presidential Candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga is trying to forge an alliance with the Conservative party, and other political forces, based on their rejection of the peace agreement.
In 2017, the opposition could gain (more) political support depending on what happens regarding the implementation of the peace agreement.
The FARC concentration process has already faced difficulties and delays, enough to renegotiate its timeline.
Other parts of the agreement, like coca crop substitution and rural reform will be implemented with more difficulty.
The “early victories” meant to result from the Rapid Response Plan already face, and will continue to do so, serious challenges, such as the presence of illegal armed groups, institutional disagreements and insufficient funding, which will limit their effectiveness and implementation.
The timing of some parts of the agreement could also favour opposition discourses during campaigning. For example, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP), the transitional justice tribunal created by the peace agreement, will likely not be up and running until 2018. Only then may it hear its first cases, but it will likely not have handed down any sentences before the presidential elections.
At the same time, FARC fighters – mainly low-level members – will have received amnesty, benefits from their reincorporation package, security guarantees and the guerrillas will have a functioning political party, before the leaders will have told the whole truth at the SJP.
Added to this, the various, fragmented political parties who do support the agreement will need to create some coalition to get a candidate to the second round, while facing these challenges, which will be beyond difficult.
Therefore, it is likely that Colombia will have a president who rejects the implementation of at least part of the peace agreement in 2018. Outgoing Vice-President German Vargas is still somewhat of a wildcard, but could still play a decisive role; he could support an anti-peace agreement candidate if he does not make it to the second round of voting.
Nonetheless, some aspects of the agreement will be implemented independent of presidential politics. The SPJ will be created and have to function; the FARC will participate in politics and also leave their weapons behind to become reintegrated; and the truth commission and unit to search for the disappeared will start their work. The rest of the agreement, in the medium-term, is at risk of never fulfilling its objectives.
For the agreement to be sustainable in the medium and long term after 2018, it is essential that key parts of it be implemented quickly and effectively and provide tangible benefits on the ground.
The campaign in favour of the agreement and its implementation should focus on mobilising public support though concrete results and consequently increase the perceived political cost of not carrying out the reforms outlined in the accord.
There are various keys to creating such a scenario. The FARC’s arms abandonment process must continue according to the schedule outlined in the peace agreement, despite early delays, especially the actual handover of weapons to the UN mission.
Violence against social leaders needs to stop or decrease, which means the agreement on security guarantees must be implemented and complemented by other actions taken quickly by the government, such as strengthening security schemes and measures for threatened leaders and communities.
A proactive communications strategy will also be necessary to show advances on the ground, especially in the arms abandonment process. Different parts of the transitional justice agreement besides the SJP, such as the truth commission, the search for victims of forced disappearance and reparations, along with humanitarian initiatives such as de-mining, must make progress to keep victims’ rights in the centre of the process.
Finally, institutions charged with roles in implementing the accord have to be better articulated and improve their relationships, especially with presidential campaigns beginning soon.
The international community will have an important role to play, though the new Trump administration could make things more complicated. Besides footing part of the bill, the international community will have to apply subtle pressure, mainly in private but on occasion in public, so that the agreement is fully carried out, not least the parts it has financed.
While the international community has expressed concerns for the killing of social leaders, increasing public calls for violence to stop and justice could be important in raising the political costs of such attacks.
The Colombian population will also have to raise its voice to protect the agreement, or it will run the risk of repeating the experience regarding peace in the 1990s: guerrillas in politics, but no changes in Colombia’s regions.
Kyle Johnson is Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Colombia since January 2016. He has over 10 years of experience studying the Colombian armed conflict and related issues, and has lived in Bogotá for more than 6 years. Kyle has extensive field experience in the country and has focused on conflict dynamics and peacebuilding at a local level.
Originally published in Colombia Reports