Opinion: There is still hope for peace in Colombia | Opinion | DW | 04.10.2016
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Opinion: There is still hope for peace in Colombia

The rejection of the FARC peace treaty does not mean there is no chance of peace. The country does not need international outrage to salvage the peace process; now more than ever, it needs help, says DW's Uta Thofern.

The majority of Colombians did not vote against peace, but instead, against the peace treaty. No one in Colombia wants to continue the war. That's the good news.

The bad news is that a large majority did not even vote, following an international trend that was last seen on this scale recently in the Brexit referendum. For this reason alone the international uproar over the "no" to the peace treaty is presumptuous. A more precise analysis of the referendum reveals many similarities to political developments in other countries – but also new opportunities.

A glance at the regional distribution of the results shows that advocates of the peace treaty won by a slight margin in Bogota but that in all other major cities, like Medellin, the opponents prevailed. Actually, it is where the decades of civil war were least perceptible. The peace treaty met with the greatest approval in the sparsely populated rural and remote regions of the country. It is a sign that the victims of the conflict were willing to forfeit justice for the sake of their safety, unlike the middle class citizens who, because of their sense of justice, could not accept the lenient transitional laws for the guerrillas.

Not a victory for populism

There was also a great show of support for the peace treaty in the Atlantic coast region where President Manuel Santos traditionally enjoys broad support and where voter turnout was extremely low apparently due to Hurricane Matthew. However, the city of Cucuta, located directly on the border with Venezuela, overwhelmingly voted "no." Ex-president Alvaro Uribe's excessive warnings of a communist takeover that would ensue from the peace treaty were taken very seriously in light of the depressing reality in Venezuela.

Thofern Uta Kommentarbild App

DW's Uta Thofern

It would be too simple to conclude that populism has won in this referendum.

On one hand, the "si" camp did not refrain from making populist comments and calling opponents of the proposed deal war profiteers without having acknowledged their arguments. On the other hand, the low turnout helped the "no" camp win, contrary to all poll predictions - and the hurricane was not raging throughout the entire country.

Abstentionism means indifference and resignation and also a loss of faith in the political system. Angry people go out to vote as soon as they are offered a new alternative. It is sadly a familiar phenomenon in Europe and the USA.

Distrust towards the political elite

In Colombia, the irreconcilable political positions are reflected in the bad blood between the former friends Santos and Uribe. Both of them evoked the impression that ultimately, each of them wanted to reap the laurels of peace for himself. This suspicion stoked the already widespread distrust towards the political elite.

Furthermore, almost unanimous support for the peace agreement was expressed in national and international media. Many Colombians felt that it was no longer possible to have an unbiased discussion about their concerns. President Santos and supporters of the deal could have done more to convince their opponents. Thus, the cunning ex-president managed to benefit from his rival's certainty of triumph over the Uribists and also the president's inability to enter into dialogue.

"No hay mal que por bien no venga," is the Spanish expression for "every cloud has a silver lining." Try to look on the bright side. The unexpected defeat has compelled President Santos to open a dialogue with his opponents and Uribe seems more than pleased to oblige. Of course, he has ulterior motives, but it is a promising start – especially since the guerrillas announced that they will continue to observe the ceasefire. The civil war cannot come to an end without overcoming the divide within the country. Renegotiating peace will be tough and above all, lengthy. Despite the disappointment about the referendum's outcome, the international community must support Colombia on its arduous journey because there is still hope for peace.

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