Recent polls have shown that Sunday’s Presidential election run-off in Colombia is anybody’s game. President-canddiate Juan Manuel Santos is seeking a re-election and his challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga is supported by Santos’ predecessor, the hyper-popular and controversial former President Alvaro Uribe.
Four recent developments have significantly shifted the narratives and political environment’s surrounding the defining issue in this election (the peace talks with the FARC in Havana). Zuluaga has moderated his position on the talks, but – echoing Uribe as President – he denies the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia. On the other hand, the FARC and the government in Havana have agreed upon a preliminary set of principles on the fifth issue on the table (Victim’s and their rights), and the leader of the FARC declared a ceasefire until June 30.
The FARC – preparing for President Zuluaga?
The FARC’s leader, Timoleon Jimenez (alias ‘Timochenko’) declared a unilateral ceasefire for the second round-off Presidential elections. Elections are on June 15, and the FARC declared a break from hostilities towards the Colombian Armed Forces and infrastructure from the 9th to the 30th of June.
Interestingly, Timochenko made the announcement in a letter directed towards Zuluaga exclusively. In the letter, the rebel leader tries to argue that in a recent confrontation in Chilvi, Tumaco, during the course of which the FARC ‘supposedly’ threw an explosive that killed 2 children, had nothing to do with them.
Timochenko makes reference to Zuluaga’s assertion that the FARC have not shown any gestures of goodwill for peace; Timochenko said that this ceasefire is an example and that it is the government – who will not declare a bilateral ceasefire- who has not shown good will.
Given Zuluaga’s victory in the first round of elections, perhaps the FARC are trying to prepare for negotiations with a President Zuluaga but for now this is only speculation.
Zuluaga with the Conservatives – giving Peace a Chance?
Former Conservative Presidential Candidate Marta Lucia Ramirez – another Uribe supporter – endorsed Zuluaga for the run-off. As part of her endorsement, she reached an policy agreement with Zuluaga, moderating his position on the peace talks. Instead of now suspending the dialogues as soon as he would take office, Zuluaga says he will continue the dialogues but only according to certain conditions. If elected, Zuluaga will try and verify that within a month, the FARC are no longer recruiting minors, placing anti-personnel landmines (and letting the government know where they are), to end ‘terrorist attacks’ against the population, end war crimes, attacks against infrastructure, and for their to be a timeline on the negotiations. The agreement also calls on the FARC to honour their promises to no longer kidnap for ransom.
Uribe, Zuluaga’s mentor, has said that “Zuluaga was never against peace”, but was against impunity and a condition-less negoitation. Others have argued that this 180 degree turn-around on Zuluaga’s part is not to be trusted.
Zuluaga’s significant change on an issue that arguably created a reaction which in turn created his party (Uribe’s ‘Democratic Centre’) can perhaps be read several ways. Zuluaga may indeed believe and respect the accord, and try to seek a negotiated settlement with the FARC in good faith. Perhaps then, the questions surrounding Uribe’s desire to stay central to Colombian political life are less about militarily defeating the FARC, and more about electing his candidate to the country’s highest office. Given how the tightness between the two candidates, that includes appealing to a broader base who may see some promise in the talks, and trying to disrupt Santos’ narrative that the President represents peace and that Zuluaga and Uribe are war-mongers.
Another potential scenario is that Zuluaga has no intention of continuing the Peace talks. His positions started from breaking the talks altogether, to suspending them, to now continuing them conditionally. According to this thesis, Zuluaga is seeking to have his cake and eat it too: He can this way be perceived as balanced, wanting a negotiated settlement over more war, but setting restrictive conditions that would amount to a de-facto suspension of the talks.
In response to whether his new position was ‘treason’ to his generally pro-military approach constituency, Zuluaga said that he is “opening space [in his campaign] for very important groups that represent millions of Colombians”.
There might be peace, but there is no war – Uribe’s War On Terror narratives on the campaign trail
The other important item coming from Zuluaga is his interview with alternative newspaper La Silla Vacia. Here, Zuluaga says that there is no “armed conflict” in Colombia, and instead that security issues are rooted in a “terrorist threat” (the guerrillas). He has repeatedly (and erroneously) called the FARC “the largest drug cartel in the world”. Zuluaga’s discourse is precisely how Uribe characterized the guerrillas during his presidency – as “narco-terrorists” who are not worthy of political status. On the other hand, in this narrative the Colombian State and its’ use of force is seen as legitimate. Uribe’s discourse clearly has spectres of the War On Terror in which the enemy is depoliticized and seen as a security threat to overcome, and not to reach a political negotiation with.
In a televised debate a few nights ago, Santos asked repeatedly whether Zuluaga considered Colombia’s situation to constitute an “armed conflict”, which Zuluaga dodged.
Finally, another term from Uribe’s language that Zuluaga has been employing is the juxtaposition between a legitimate democracy (represented, they argue, by the Colombian state) and the ‘authoritarian’ regimes in Cuba and Venezuela (referred to as ‘Castro-Chavismo’). Zuluaga contends that the FARC are a representation of ‘Castro-Chavismo’ and that the negotiations in Havana are subsequently ceding Colombia’s democracy.
This represents a key difference between Uribe and Santos – enshrined in the landmark 2011 Victim’s & Land Restitution Law- over a semantic question of immense political importance: Is there an armed conflict in Colombia? The Victim’s Law explicitly makes reference to one, which Uribe opposed when the Law was a bill under his government. This technical/abstract distinction affects the nature of the negotiations in Havana. Given the vehement rejection of most Colombians – particularly Urbanites and elites- of the FARC, Santos knows he does not have a mandate to negotiate at any cost. Nevertheless, recognizing an armed conflict between two belligerents logically precedes a need for a negotiation. The FARC, weakened but not defeated, see the process (or at least are trying to frame it as) a negotiation between equal parts. Zuluaga on the other hand, sees the FARC as terrorists who need to surrender to the legitimate institutions and justice of the Colombian state.
Some victim’s groups – who in discussions about the Law became political footballs for differences about the armed conflict definition – are therefore concerned that a Zuluaga Presidency would roll back some of the gains made with Santos of recognizing a conflict (and therefore, that there are victims who have been abused by different perpetrators, not just the guerrillas).
Victim’s Tentatively Recognized by FARC and the government?
That was the other big news today. the FARC and the government negotiators in Havana have reached an agreement on 10 ‘principles’ surrounding the fifth item on the table – victims and their rights.
The ten points include a recognition of the conflict’s victims, and a commitment to not letting the negotiations result in “an exchange of impunities”. The accord has commitments to responsibility, reparations, and a guarantee of protection and security. The deal also included a tentative commission to ‘clarify’ the historical truth of the conflict, a key demand of the insurgents. It will further include a gender sup-group.
Interestingly, the deal also includes something quite novel in peace processes – spaces for victims’ participation. Apparently a delegation will go to Havana soon, and several forums will be organized around the country in the coming month.
This point may be politically motivated (it cannot be a coincidence that this was announced a week before the Presidential elections). However, it also allows Santos to argue that the FARC are willing to recognize their victims, and that the State has also victimized.
Whether this will calm enough the anxiety of what exact balance between justice and peace is being struck in Havana, and be an example of supposed good faith between both parties, can’t be known until Sunday.