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Can the Colombian peace deal be salvaged?

The ceasefire in Colombia is holding, despite a national referendum against the deal with FARC rebels. Will a consensus be reached on the controversial points in the peace agreement?

The head of the Colombian guerilla group surprised everyone with his self-criticism. "Maybe it was actually a good thing that the peace agreement was rejected," admitted Rodrigo Londono, who is known as Timochenko, on Wednesday in an interview with the Colombian radio station "Caracol."

It was an historic moment: On September 26, after five years of negotiations, the Colombian government and FARC rebels signed a comprehensive peace agreement that would end 52 years of civil war in the country. On October 2, the people of Colombia voted "no" in a referendum on the peace deal. In the end, 50.2 percent voted against the treaty; however, voter turnout was only 37 percent.

The "no" camp, led by former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, was actually surprised about the narrow victory. "Nobody expected a 'no', not even the 'no' advocates," said Tuto Wehrle, a project manager at "Terres des Hommes" in Bogota. "The way out of this mess is totally unclear."

Kolumbien Proteste gegen die Regierung (picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Vergara)

Colombians want peace, but a narrow majority of voters did not want it under the FARC's conditions

Contentious point: transitional justice system

FARC's head Timochenko strikes a conciliatory chord. "We cannot simply throw away a chance for peace after 52 years of civil war," he said in a radio interview. But he also said there were limits for corrections in the peace treaty.

"It would irresponsible to start a new discussion about FARC's political participation and sentencing for former commanders in the context of the transitional justice system," he said. "After all, it was the most difficult chapter in the peace negotiations."

What is the next step? How long will the August 29 ceasefire between guerillas and army go on? What will happen to FARC fighters who are prepared to demobilize and be escorted back to their camps by the army? How long will UN representatives stay in Colombia and monitor the demobilization?

The many unanswered questions and insecurities, like a sword of Damocles, hang over the peace process in Colombia. The massive peace marches in the country show that time is running out. They must give Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos the political momentum to achieve his mission.

Kolumbien FARC Nationale Guerilla Konferenz Rodrigo Londono Echeverri (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Duenas Castaneda)

Conciliatory in tone, tough on the issues - FARC leader Timochenko

First commander, then member of parliament?

Right after the referendum, Santos established work groups representing the supporters and opponents of the peace treaty. They are negotiating potential reforms. Both parties' demands have been on the table since Wednesday.

"The transitional justice system is not meant to prevent the appropriate sentencing of those responsible for serious crimes," explained ex-president Uribe to the national press. Furthermore, he believes that allowing former FARC commanders to run for political office would set a dangerous precedent.

The former German Ambassador to Colombia, Günter Kniess, believes that merely the two sides' willingness to talk is a sign of progress. "The fact that there is a rapprochement between the government and the Uribe camp is a positive development for Colombia which goes beyond the peace process," he explained. "Hopefully this will help overcome the polarization that is dividing the country."

Blessing in disguise?

In retrospect, Kniess supports the rejection of the peace treaty. "If the outcome had been a narrow 'yes,' then a large part of the population would now be against the peace treaty," he said. "If an agreement is reached by the most important political forces in the country now, conditions for the long-term implementation of the peace treaty would be much better than before."

Kolumbien ELN National Liberation Army Rebellen (picture-alliance/dpa/El Tiempo)

Will Colombia's second-largest guerilla group, the ELN, also put down their weapons?

It remains to be seen whether the different political camps will reach an agreement. Tuto Wehrle from "Terre des Hommes" is not so sure. "It is likely that the elections in 2018 will decide whether the peace treaty is put into effect or not."

Amidst the trials and tribulations of the Colombian peace process, another announcement has given cause for cautious optimism. On October 27, the official negotiations between the Colombian government and the second strongest guerilla group ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional) begin in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital.

"If both negotiation processes converge at some point, then their implementation can begin at the same time or with a small time difference," said former Ambassador Kniess with hope. Then the fear of ELN filling the vacuum left by FARC will be unfounded, he added, saying "the Colombians deserve the peace that many of them no longer know."

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