In a referendum held on Sunday 2 October, Colombian voters surprised pundits (polls had suggested a comfortable win for the ‘yes’ campaign) by rejecting the peace agreement that the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the rebels of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) had concluded on 23 August (see here) after nearly four years of painstaking negotiations. The victory of the ‘no’ campaign – even if somewhat qualified by the very narrow margin (50.2% versus 49.8%) and the low voter turnout (less than 40%) – entails an immense setback in particular for Santos. He had made the peace deal the centrepiece of his presidency and – as illustrated by the grandiose signing ceremony organised in the city of Cartagena on 26 September and attended by many prominent international observers – had been confident in a favourable referendum outcome.

Impact on country risk

All in all, the ‘no’ vote in the referendum has clearly dealt the Colombian peace process a huge blow. Yet in spite of Santos’ earlier statements that – while imperfect – the agreement at hand was the best possible negotiated outcome and that there was no ‘plan B’, an imminent return to warfare is unlikely. Indeed, both the government and the FARC have indicated that they are still committed to peace and that the bilateral ceasefire remains in effect. The longer-term outlook is much more uncertain, however. That is not least because the possibility of a renegotiated agreement now seems to hinge on the support of influential former President Álvaro Uribe, the political leader of the ‘no’ campaign who has always been very sceptical of the peace process. While Uribe has indeed stressed the need to renegotiate the deal – in particular the passages related to transitional justice (denouncing the amnesty that in certain cases would be granted to FARC fighters who admit guilt) and political participation of the rebels (criticising the guaranteed legislative representation they would be granted until 2026) – it is doubtful that the FARC will be willing to make meaningful concessions. Indeed, chances are that even though FARC unity has so far proven relatively strong, the movement will plunge into chaos if the leadership does not manage to secure a sufficiently attractive deal. In such a scenario, many fighters may decide to break away from the FARC, opting to join other rebel movements or criminal gangs instead of disarming and facing an uncertain future.

Analyst: Sebastian Vanderlinden, s.vanderlinden@credendogroup.com