Why Colombia faces a much stiffer Referendum test than Northern Ireland in 1998…

The Constitutional Court of Colombia has given President Santos four months to complete his four years of Havana Talks with the FARC and put the deal to the people in a referendum.

Remind you of Senator George Mitchell in 1998, musing: ‘I’m fed up with these Stormont Castle Buildings, I’m having a child soon, I’m outta here by Easter, unless you guys get off the pot’?

There are eight other uncanny similarities in the upcoming plebiscite across Colombia, with ours of 1998:

  1. There will be a focussed, sharp six-week campaign only; partly, like us, to avoid ‘unravelling’, but also presenting challenges in communicating a 20,000 word complex, sometimes ‘constructively ambiguous’, legal-jargon text to a confused and sullen citizenry;
  1. The political parties in favour are selling different messages as the Greens argue ‘Adios a las FARC’, (emphasising its defeat), the leftists ‘Si a la Paz’(expressing the relief of ending half a century of war), and the President promoting his necessary compromises; voters like to see politicians, normally opposed to each other, working together but not in anarchic chaos;
  1. The No Campaign has a single powerful, charismatic, articulate leader, former President Uribe, who enjoys massive media access as the single spokesperson, but apparently limited depth of support, no NGOs, no artists, no celebrities, no sports stars, no obvious business community backing; he can scatter emotional hand grenades without the responsibility of providing evidence or the potential burden of future implementation; a proposition that ‘a better peace’ can be won, however unrealistic, may gain traction;
  1. The media are broadly in favour of the deal, but in order to demonstrate ‘balance’ give huge (disproportionate?) airtime to No, whose only leader seems to be Uribe, who can therefore develop consistency, coherence and clarity, against a cacophony of Yes voices, with significantly divergent messaging;
  1. Civil society has not yet found its voice fearful of the overly ‘political’ fray, uncertain of its legitimate role in the discourse, unclear about the strongest messages and overwhelmed by the domineering politicians of old; nor the local champions of peace, opinion-formers and lightning conductors of appropriate messages; 
  1. Certain crunch issues are toxic in the public space from ‘impunity for wrong-doers’, prisoner release, ‘terrorists in Congress’, ‘Is the war over?’ and the rights of victims, without the ease of promoting the balancing, yet-to-be-achieved peace dividends;
  1. The voters who will really benefit from peace are cautious, from the business sector who fear being accused of self-interest, campesinos who fear the residual power of dissidents and spoilers eager to hold their narco-trafficking gains and the burgeoning urban middle classes who have been shielded from the conflict for a decade and forget its pain;
  1. The FARC will stay quiet during the campaign – or will they? Remember Gerry Adams receiving the specially released Balcombe Street Gang as ‘our Mandelas’ to rapturous applause in the RDS in Dublin, followed only a week later by Michael Stone’s triumphal release into the Ulster Hall’s baying UDA crowds?

Quintin Oliver has recently returned from Bogota where Stratagem International advises on the forthcoming Colombian Referendum – he wrote two seminal referendum pieces for Slugger in early 2012, before the Scottish poll.