Peace deal rejected in Colombia

The curse of the low turnout


Referendums, it would seem from the weekend experience, are far from the perfect, unambiguous expressions of popular will that some of their champions would have us believe. In Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been left with egg on his face after the majority of voters snubbed his poll condemning EU migration policy – only 40 per cent of voters participated (10 percentage points less than the required minimum turnout).

And in Colombia, an overconfident government was defeated by the narrowest margin (50.2 - 49.8 per cent) over a peace deal with Farc rebels because only 37 per cent of voters bothered to turn out.

Much like the Brexit vote, polls up to the day of voting in Colombia had predicted a clear win for the agreement to end the 52-year war which has claimed 220,000 lives. Yet, as Ireland could testify of its own Lisbon Treaty experience, a low poll will favour the more highly motivated and mobilised opponents of a deal that is advocated only half-heartedly by its proponents as a complicated and shoddy but necessary compromise. A difficult wicket to play.

Hold your nose and vote Yes, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos seemed to be saying. But too many Colombians had seen up close Farc violence against their family members to accept a pragmatic deal that would allow its guerillas to be reintegrated into society, and even take unelected places in parliament, with only the mildest of punishment. Even if, as many No voters also accepted, this appeared to be the only road to peace. Easier just not to vote.

A weakened Santos, probably accompanied this time by bitter rival, hard-right former President Alvaro Uribe, who led the No campaign, will now have to try to reopen talks with Farc that have already lasted six years.

The latter has been quick to assure the country that it has no intention of returning to violence. But whether it will be prepared to accept a new deal involving lengthy jail terms for its leaders is another matter. Decommissioning and demobilisation are on hold.