By Alejandro Posada Téllez and Mario Carvajal Cabal
Tensions are running high in Colombia six years after the signature of the historic Peace Agreement in 2016. This year, the Colombian people are tasked with electing a new parliament and president, in an electoral round that will prove critical for the prospect of reconciling a nation marked by the lasting legacies of war. Colombia’s democratic processes appear to be rupturing much of the social fabric that the 2016 Agreement sought to repair with its truth- and justice-seeking institutions. Amidst rising polarisation, a lack of popular confidence in the state and its institutions, and an electoral agenda permeated by long-standing antagonism, Colombia’s social cohesion is dangerously fragile. For a country with a long history of political violence, this backdrop is especially concerning, as it risks reproducing the cycles of large-scale violence that recent peace efforts have tried to prevent. The acute sectarianism of this electoral period has become the greatest threat to the stable peace devised by Colombians not too long ago.
Colombia’s recent history has been shaped by a decades-long civil war that left 220,000 dead and over eight million forcibly displaced. From 1964, the country was immersed in an armed conflict between communist revolutionary groups, far-right paramilitaries, organised crime and the government itself. In November 2016, the Colombian government signed a historic peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest of Colombia’s insurgent groups. Hailed by the international community as the most comprehensive agreement of its kind, the Colombian Peace Accords established a series of transitional justice mechanisms to bring the conflict to an end and help Colombians come to terms with past wrongdoings. The treaty accomplished early successes, including the rapid disarmament and demobilisation of over 13,000 FARC combatants. But the remaining armed groups, who continue to profit from illicit drug production and engage in violent disputes over the rural territories previously controlled by the FARC, hinder Colombia’s path to lasting peace.
Heated discussions continue over the legitimacy of the transitional justice processes and mechanisms. President Iván Duque himself recently denounced part of the Peace deal, the statutory law governing the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a tribunal set up to judge crimes committed during the conflict. Duque’s objections have undermined the legal security of those testifying before the body and eroded trust in justice institutions. In February of last year, the JEP reported 6,402 cases of extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2008, under the presidency of Álvaro Uribe. Uribe’s party rejected this investigation, arguing that the figures were biased and that the institutions created under the 2016 peace agreement were illegitimate.
Despite its ongoing challenges, the accords gave this generation of Colombians the opportunity to picture a more peaceful future in a fairer, more equitable Colombia. Yet the treaty itself is merely a top-down first step in the intergenerational process of coming to terms with the country’s bloody past. While the agreement’s attempts at fostering peace and reconciliation are important, its success will face limits unless these efforts trickle down to the lives of individual Colombians. A more expansive view of what it means to ‘build peace’ goes beyond the agreement and its implementation to encompass the transformation of social relations among Colombians. It would involve fostering a culture of dialogue where conflict is resolved by peaceful means, cultivating a more harmonious relationship between state and society and restoring trust between previously antagonistic groups. Though the peace agreement has sought to assist in these processes, primarily with truth-seeking and restorative justice practices, it has overlooked the importance of everyday social relationships in the pursuit of peace. Reconciliation at the local level is needed if this war-torn society is to produce a shared narrative for the future.
Unfortunately, the elite-driven nature of the accord has left many ordinary Colombians dissatisfied with the progress achieved in terms of peace and reconciliation since 2016. In a series of recent interviews, inhabitants of the isolated Nariño department showed their discontent with the security situation in their region. Since the FARC demobilised, the government has failed to fill the power vacuum left behind. One respondent claimed that ‘peace was our dream, but nothing has changed’, while another argued that ‘the peace agreement seems to only exist on desks’. On a national level, a poll from February 2022 showed that only 16% of citizens believed that the signing of the peace treaty with the FARC brought peace to Colombia. This represents a shocking 55-percentage-point decrease from January 2021.
This plummet in approval is consistent with a series of violent protests in April 2021, when demonstrators took to the streets to reject a proposed tax increase in the midst of the pandemic. Protests quickly turned violent, with large cities such as Cali and Bogotá suffering the brunt of the violence. The government party blamed the violence on the country’s left-wing parties, which they argued had fostered resentment and discontent among protesters. In an interview at the time of the protests, President Iván Duque himself stated, ‘when I won the elections, [Gustavo Petro, a left-wing politician] said he was going to be in the streets my entire term ... his purpose was not to let me rule’. Left-leaning opposition parties, in contrast, criticised the militarised state response and accused the government of systematically killing young people and ‘transforming the towns of Colombia into battlefields’. The political discourse that surrounded the protests deeply divided the country, stoked the flames of class division and resonated with a population already rife with mistrust.
In terms of interpersonal relations, Colombia does not show signs of healing from the wounds of over 60 years of armed conflict. A 2021 poll revealed that 38.5% of Colombians agree that physical or verbal aggression is necessary to solve everyday issues, while 31.9% affirmed that their neighbours and community members teach children that they should fight back when insulted or attacked. 21.8% of respondents said that they do not trust any of their neighbours. On the national level, too, violence is seeping into politics. Leading politician Rodolfo Hernández first rose to fame after a video of him slapping a political opponent in 2018 went viral. Since then, he has accused his political opponents of being ‘scoundrels’, ‘robbers’ and ‘thieves’. This lack of trust and social cohesion within and between communities, alongside the normalisation of violent conduct, represent some of the most critical issues that impede reconciliation processes in Colombia.
Against this backdrop, the 2022 parliamentary and presidential elections have offered an opportunity to assess how far Colombians have come in this process of reconciliation. However, political divisions have intensified, drawing a disheartening political landscape that leaves little room for optimism. These divisions became evident with the victory of Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández – two highly divisive and populist leaders – in the first round of presidential elections. Whilst Petro has traditionally positioned himself as the single anti-establishment candidate, the unexpected rise of Hernández, a self-identified political outsider, demonstrates that Colombians want change at all costs. The victory of two candidates who, in their own particular ways, are promising to shake up Colombia’s political landscape signifies a decisive defeat of the country’s small ruling elite. Although this may be a positive development in the long run, the electorate’s current political fatigue has empowered leaders who feed off a politics of enmity.
Indeed, supporters of the presidential candidates have normalised polarising narratives of ‘us versus them’ over the course of their political campaigns. Dominated by mutual antipathy, the 2022 electoral race has been framed as a vicious competition between right and left, conservatives and progressives, fascists and communists, democrats and populists, patriots and traitors. Recent mud-slinging scandals have been severe: each presidential candidate strategically disseminated fake news to delegitimise the other, Petro supporters infiltrated the campaign of conservative candidate Federico Gutiérrez, and all presidential candidates launched mutual attacks over private affairs. In one of these episodes, Gutiérrez warned that Petro was backed by armed groups – ‘[Petro] allied himself with criminal organisations against me’, he claimed – but he failed to offer proof of his allegations. Meanwhile, Hernández has recurrently been compared to Donald Trump and once said, in a televised interview, ‘I am a follower of a great German thinker. His name is Adolph Hitler’ – though he later insisted he’d meant to say ‘Albert Einstein’. Among their followers, defamatory accusations of paramilitar (‘paramilitary member’) or guerrillero (‘guerrilla member’) have become commonplace. Far from contributing to peace and reconciliation, these contentious politics have deepened tensions and mistrust among Colombians, severely undermining the development of a culture of dialogue driven by a collective ‘us’.
Polarisation in Colombian politics is not a new phenomenon. Not only was the armed civil strife the centre of the country’s political activity for decades, but the 2016 Peace Agreement itself was a major line of division. Just over half of those who participated in the referendum voted to reject the peace accords. The Agreement was ratified unilaterally by Congress after a partial renegotiation that nonetheless failed to satisfy most of the deal’s opponents. Recently, the governing party, Centro Democrático, has argued that the agreement strengthened illegal armed groups and drug traffickers by weakening state authorities. The opposition, on the other hand, contend that continued violence was caused by the state’s limited capacity to protect its citizens, over-centralised institutions and overall unresponsiveness to the demands of the people – as reflected by the violent protests of April 2021. In criticising the disconnect between citizens and elites, the opposition has stoked a class divide that has further divided the country.
The 2018 presidential elections displayed many of the patterns of discord between followers of right- and left-wing candidates that have only been strengthened four years on, such as the stigmatisation of leftist views and the weakening of centrist coalitions. On that occasion, right-wing candidate Iván Duque won the presidency over Gustavo Petro. This year, however, the political agenda has turned into an antagonistic battleground that threatens the democratic nature of Colombian electoral processes. Increasingly, the electorate favours voting against the candidates they dislike most, instead of for the ones that best reflect their preferences. This strategy, known in Colombia as voto útil (‘useful vote’), is pursued in the hope of keeping opponents out of power and prevents the realisation and recognition of voters’ true desires. It reflects an electorate plagued with fear, mistrust and animosity, and stands in dangerous opposition to the principle of personal conviction upon which participatory democracy rests.
The parliamentary elections that took place in March did little to alleviate tensions between Colombians. On the contrary, irregularities in the vote count – and the allegations of fraud that followed – heightened tensions and undermined confidence in the state’s institutions. Initially, the preliminary vote count indicated a narrow win for Petro’s Pacto Histórico. Days later, electoral authorities announced that almost 500,000 votes for Petro’s coalition had not been included in the preliminary count due to a human error, increasing the success of the Pacto. This led Colombia’s governing right, including President Duque, to declare the election fraudulent. Due to the backlash received from all sides of the political spectrum, electoral authorities proposed a recount, which Petro in turn denounced as an attempted coup. Eventually, the recount proposal was discarded as illegal under Colombian law, and a formal investigation into the incident never took place. That this happened two months before the presidential elections sets an unfortunate precedent, as it may cast lasting doubts over the transparency and legitimacy of Colombia’s electoral institutions in the eyes of voters. In a country like Colombia, where patterns of political violence have been persistent for over six decades, the lack of faith in the state and its institutions is perilous because it risks the future resurgence of violence in times of intense polarisation – much like today.
According to one poll, 57% of Colombians do not trust their democracy, and half of voters think that fraud occurred in the April election. This lack of trust bodes ill for future elections, as losing candidates may fuel a dangerous politics of contention by claiming fraud in the face of defeat. Petro himself has said ‘there is no democracy in Colombia,’ and argued that the country is controlled by a corrupt elite, while urging voters to elect him to reinstate the rule of the people. Former right-wing President Álvaro Uribe responded to these allegations, stating that Petro was using the ‘absence of democracy’ as an excuse to bypass and destroy the state’s electoral institutions. Rodolfo Hernández, too, has declared that ‘democracy in Colombia is pure lies’. This lack of trust in democracy among Colombia’s leading political figures is troubling in a country where recent polling shows 33% of respondents agreed with the statement, ‘I do not have a preference between a democratic or non-democratic regime’. The fact that Colombians not only question the legitimacy of a recent election, but the country’s political system itself, is a concerning development for current and future democratic processes.
The 2022 election cycle in Colombia has revealed and intensified patterns of socio-political division in the country. This backdrop of polarisation is overwhelming the peace efforts and proving detrimental for the prospects of sustaining a lasting peace. The fact that Colombians are experiencing critical levels of animosity is alarming, especially considering the recurrence of political violence in Colombia’s recent history. The ongoing political shifts may renew cycles of conflict in a society that has recently attempted to restore its social tissue after decades of war. That time appears to have passed.
ALEJANDRO POSASA TELLÉZ reads International Relations at St Antony's. Rumour has it that he was the inspiration behind Lady Gaga's song. MARIO CARAJAL CABAL reads for an MSc in Latin American Studies at St Antony's College. He is an avid jazz fan who lacks any ability to play an instrument.
Art by Alice Penrose