What Colombia’s Presidential Election Means for the Peace Process with the FARC

Colombia has been at war for over 50 years. The internal armed conflict between the government and the Marxist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC after their Spanish acronym, originated in the aftermath of a bloody period of political violence during the 1950s known as “La Violencia,” or “The Violence.”

Peasant self-defense groups that had formed to resist the forcible privatization of lands by the Colombian army began to band together after the end of The Violence in 1959. In 1964, one such group drafted what is considered the founding document of the FARC, the “Agrarian Program of the Guerrillas,” which laid out the FARC’s agenda of radical land reform and its Bolivarian revolutionary ideology. In the following decades, the group’s ranks swelled as the rebels became involved in the cocaine trade, as well as in extortion, kidnapping and robbery.

Half a century later, the armed struggle may finally be coming to an end. In 2011, after two top commanders were killed by military operations in relatively quick succession, the FARC asked the government to consider peace negotiations. In September 2012, President Juan Manuel Santos agreed.

On May 25, Colombian citizens will head to the polls to choose their next president. It seems fairly clear that the two frontrunners are the incumbent President Santos and Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who served as Finance Minister under the administration of Santos’ predecessor Álvaro Uribe. One recent poll shows the two candidates in a statistical dead heat, but the survey’s timing calls its reliability into question.

The poll was conducted after news broke that Santos’ campaign manager allegedly accepted a $12 million bribe from drug traffickers, but before an imbroglio involving a member of Zuluaga’s staff hit the airwaves. Last weekend, a video emerged that apparently showed Zuluaga discussing classified information allegedly obtained illegally from Colombian and US military sources by a hacker whom his campaign had hired to assist with “information security.”

In the estimation of Adam Isacson, a Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, there is little chance that Zuluaga can recover from the incident. From his perspective, this is a good sign for the future of the peace talks.

“Zuluaga has said, ‘I will end this peace process unless the FARC immediately cease all hostilities,’ which is tantamount to saying, ‘I will end this peace process,'” Isacson said. “Colombians who vote for Zuluaga know they are voting for peace process to end.”

According to Isacson, the peace process is well-designed, but the Santos government has done a poor job of presenting it to the public. The talks are moving very slowly and the administration has not effectively articulated the progress that has been made thus far.

The negotiating agenda consists of six items: agricultural policy reform, the political participation of the FARC, ending the armed conflict, the illegal drug trade, victim reparations and the implementation of the final deal. In May 2013, the two sides came to an agreement on agricultural policy reform and in November they reached an accord on the issue of political participation. Last week, the FARC agreed to a deal on the issue of the illegal drug trade and called for a ceasefire during the upcoming election.

The deal could give Santos a boost at the polls on Sunday. “Santos was certainly helped by the agenda agreement,” said Isacson. “It gave the impression that the talks have some momentum.”

If no candidate receives an absolute majority of the vote, a runoff election between the two top-finishing candidates will be held on June 15. However, even if Santos succeeds in winning a second term in office, the peace process will still face major challenges.

The two most contentious issues on the negotiating agenda – demobilizing the FARC and providing reparations for victims – have yet to be resolved. Also, many analysts agree that there exists a distinct possibility that elements of the FARC could defect from the organization and continue the armed struggle or return to criminal activities after a peace deal is reached.

“I do think the top-level FARC leaders, the vast majority of them, are going to stay out of the business” in the event of a final agreement, Isacson said. “But if you’re a mid-level commander with one of these very lucrative [drug-trafficking] areas all wired up – the whole structure in place, everybody paid off – of course you’re going to consider holding on to that.”

In addition, the implementation of the final plan will require the backing of the international community, which has been relatively quiet on the issue so far.

According to Isacson, “not enough people are taking this seriously. If we have a peace accord in 12 months, we can’t just say, well who’s going to pay for the demobilization? We have to start thinking about those issues now.”

The world’s longest-running civil war has left Colombia with one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced people – an estimated 5.7 million, second only to Syria’s 6.5 million – and the death told from the decades-long conflict is estimated to be more than 200,000.

Around 70 percent of Colombians support the peace process, but nearly half think it will fail. The outcome of this presidential election could be the determining factor in the future of the negotiations. As President Santos put it in a recent interview with Der Spiegel magazine, “[I]t’s not possible to exterminate [the FARC]. If this process fails, we’ll have another 20, 30 or 40 years of war.”