As Colombians head to the polls on Sunday, May 27, for the first round of presidential elections, it would seem that the country has much to be optimistic about. The passage of a historic peace accord in late 2016 between the government and the country’s chief insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), brought an end to more than a half century of armed conflict. 

But for Washington’s closest strategic ally in the region, the outlook today is far from optimistic, much less triumphalist with a country still deeply divided by a deal that a majority of the public had rejected. Over the year and a half since its signing, the 300-page agreement continues to face mounting challenges in turning its terms into a reality, making implementation seem just as daunting as—if not more so—than fighting the war itself. Among an array of problems, crime and homicide rates have increased in many former guerrilla-controlled territories; coca production continues to climb sharply; and some FARC leaders are still involved in the drug trade, in clear violation of the accord. Further, resettlement of Colombians who had been forced from their homes by violence has proven more problematic than anticipated: security problems persist with criminal groups still active in those areas; rural development has stalled; land titles and ownership rights are in disarray; and there are no resources to make a decent living.

After decades of civil strife—along with a number of failed negotiations—the hope was that once the armed conflict ended, Colombian politics could move on from an all-consuming quest for security and peace and instead focus on forging a consensus over the country’s other major challenges: jump-starting the economy, attending long-standing social inequalities, and combating corruption, for example. This was the gamble made by Juan Manuel Santos, who staked his presidency on the peace initiative and, in doing so, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Over the year and a half since its signing, the 300-page agreement continues to face mounting challenges in turning its terms into a reality, making implementation seem just as daunting as—if not more so—than fighting the war itself.

Yet many Colombians believe that the terms of the final agreement—the product of more than four years of painstaking negotiations—were too lenient to the FARC. A particularly salient concern is whether those responsible for serious human rights violations would actually pay for their crimes by serving jail time. The peace negotiations established an elaborate “transitional justice” system, with special jurisdiction to handle crimes committed during the conflict. It is designed to deal with decades of human rights abuses, but it hasn’t been an easy political sell in a country marked by such lingering mistrust and bitterness. According to the latest Gallup poll, nearly three-quarters of Colombians believe the implementation of the peace agreement is going down the wrong track. Santos is deeply unpopular, with an approval rate of just 13 percent. 

Chief among the many detractors of the peace process is Álvaro Uribe, a former two-term president (2002–10) and current senator, whose hard-line security policies significantly weakened the FARC and made negotiations possible. In fact, Santos’ role as Uribe’s defense minister from 2006 to 2009 helped catapult him to the presidency, but Uribe felt betrayed when his successor embarked almost immediately on peace negotiations with the increasingly hated FARC. As a result, the still popular Uribe has relentlessly condemned Santos for brokering an agreement that was too forgiving of the FARC and for indulging Venezuelan strongmen Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. At the start of his term, Santos made an infelicitous reference to Chávez as his “new best friend” and sought to mend fences with Chávez, who often clashed with Uribe. For Santos, maintaining good relations with Caracas was instrumental during the negotiations, given the Venezuelan regime’s influence over FARC and its role in helping initiate and advance negotiations with the rebel group.  

The blood feud between the former protégé and former president generated and fed an unprecedentedly high level of polarization in Colombia’s politics, which dramatically came to light in October 2016, when Colombians surprisingly rejected the negotiated peace agreement in a national plebiscite. Emboldened by his support from the international community, Santos pushed the deal through Congress and its implementation began despite the popular rebuke.

The problem was that Santos’ risky move, however laudable, not only divided the country but also accelerated the rejection and breakdown of the traditional political party establishment, which for decades was one of the most stable in Latin America. Indeed, whatever the eventual peace dividends for Colombia, the immediate cost has been the rupture of the country’s political consensus, as the Colombian political scientist and former minister Fernando Cepeda has argued. That consensus revolved around how best to deal with the armed conflict—a mix of carrots and sticks—and was exemplified at Santos’ inauguration in 2010, with Uribe sitting at his side. Both leaders then belonged to the Party of the U (Unity), which Uribe and Santos founded in 2005 but from which Uribe split to found the Democratic Center party.

To be sure, Colombia’s more agitated politics, propelled not only by the peace process but also by recent economic setbacks and the wave of anticorruption efforts throughout the region, offers some hope for renewal of the political system. But at least in the short term, and as reflected in the presidential election, greater uncertainty and turbulence can be expected.

The leading contender is the center-right candidate Iván Duque, 41, an able technocrat whose political experience consists of four years as senator. According to Gallup, Duque holds just above 40 percent of the vote. Though clearly Uribe’s handpicked choice, and with no political base of his own, Duque is leading a relatively broad alliance of conservative forces and is trying to forge an independent profile—no easy task in such a polarized environment, with Uribe’s aversion to remaining on the sidelines. Duque, like Uribe, proposes restructuring the peace accord to reduce benefits for the FARC. 

Trailing Duque at nearly 30 percent in the polls is Gustavo Petro, a former senator and Bogotá mayor and previously a member of the M-19 guerrilla group. Unlike Duque, Petro has vowed to honor the accord. He leads a leftist coalition and often rails against Colombian elites, invoking a markedly populist rhetoric. Petro’s antiestablishment discourse might cost him in an eventual second round, but it clearly has resonance in Colombia, a country with one of the highest levels of inequality in the region. For the first time in recent memory, the left is mounting a serious challenge.

Colombian soldiers stand guard behind weapons confiscated from FARC, March 27, 2012.
John Vizcaino / Reuters

The other two competitive candidates are Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellín, who has broad credibility and is tapping into antiestablishment sentiment but is just above 16 percent, and Germán Vargas Lleras, Santos’ former vice president and interior minister. Vargas stands at less than seven percent but is regarded as especially wily in manipulating Colombia’s machine politics. It is striking that Humberto de la Calle, the chief negotiator of the peace deal and one of the country’s most respected statesmen who is now presidential candidate of the Colombian Liberal Party—where both Santos and Uribe began their political careers—registers less than two percent in the polls.  

As the next president takes office on August 7, Colombia finds itself in uncharted territory. Its precarious and polarized politics may pose the biggest threat to managing the peace, since it affects the capacity of the state to successfully undertake an array of tasks that are essential for the country’s continued progress. A comprehensive package of security, social, and economic policies is spelled out in the far-reaching peace agreement with the FARC but is not fully accepted because the process was not backed by a national consensus. Its implementation depends on effective institutions that, though still solid by regional standards, have weakened in recent years owing to pervasive corruption.

Decades of internal violence exacted a huge toll, with 220,000 dead, millions of internal refugees, and other untold human and economic costs. As a result, the challenges awaiting Colombia’s next president are formidable, especially with such a tough fiscal situation. They include but go beyond common challenges facing other Latin American governments: strengthening security; combating corruption and drug trafficking; reaching a peace deal with minor but still active guerrilla groups; improving education, health, and infrastructure; boosting economic growth; reforming the judiciary; and closing the wide developmental gap between rural and urban Colombia. High on the list of foreign policy challenges are the Venezuelan crisis, especially its exploding migrant flows, and relations with Washington. Bogotá worries that U.S. President Donald Trump might revive the war on drugs and, in so doing, restrict much-needed support to Colombia to pressure it to resolve its drug cultivation and trafficking problems.

As the first Colombian election after the historic signing of the peace deal approaches, the good news is that the conflict has blessedly ended, but the implementation of the accord has been complicated and contentious. It does not help that the political establishment stands fractured and discredited. The risk is that the country’s unsettled politics could upend the peace. To begin to rebuild consensus, it would be useful to return to the accord and revisit contentious issues—such as transitional justice, drug policy, and crop substitution, for example—as a starting point for bridging the divide and finding common ground in South America’s oldest democracy.

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