Colombians vote for a new president on Sunday (May 27). Regardless of who wins, the next president’s primary objective—and biggest challenge—will be consolidating the nation’s peace process between the government and the FARC rebels.
The current pool of contenders comes from a broad ideological spectrum; from the far left (Gustavo Petro) to the far right (Iván Duque), with the rest of nominees (Sergio Fajardo, Humberto de la Calle, Germán Vargas) balancing their agendas somewhere in the middle. According to the latest polls, the most extreme candidates are the most positioned to take over Colombia’s Palacio de Nariño, an office that has been held by president Juan Manuel Santos for the past eight years, following his reelection in 2014. If none of the candidates gets more than 50% of the vote in the first round, which is likely, a second round of voting will take place on June 17.
Enacting the 2016 peace treaty with FARC rebels will be key not only to the success of the president, but to the country. The treaty came after five years of negotiations and 52 years of conflict. In that time, 250,000 people died, 6.5 million were violently displaced, 80,000 disappeared, and 11,000 were victims of landmines. Billions of dollars were spent in the war—money that could have been spent developing the country, and benefitting the 4 million Colombians who live in extreme poverty.
The end of this ordeal offers a very positive outlook for our nation. Fourth in Latin America in terms of territory size and population, with 50 million inhabitants, Colombia serves as an example to the rest of the world, proof that painful feuds can have peaceful resolutions.
But the political turbulence that accompanied the signing of the peace treaty showed us how fragile the situation is. The peace process divided Colombians. In a referendum on the treaty held in October 2016, slightly over half of voters rejected the document negotiated by the government and the FARC, believing that it was too generous with the guerrillas. This unexpected outcome forced Santos and the rebels to adjust the accords. Even though this was a powerful example of democracy in action, if left the country feeling more polarized than ever, exposing fractures in society made even more evident by the current electoral race.
The incoming president will have to tackle the process’ implementation, which so far has been slow and sloppy. The current agreement states that those who confess the truth, agree to certain reparations, and commit to not repeat their felonies will be judged more leniently, and may have the option to serve alternative sentences, such as community work, instead of going to jail. It would also allow them to participate in politics.
Duque, a far-right candidate who is most likely to win, has said he will adjust critical aspects of the treaty, such as a guarantee that former guerrilla leaders will serve stricter sentences, with the possibility of jail time, before they can participate in politics.
Attempts to drastically reform the agreement risk could lead to its breakdown, and potentially an unsettling crisis in Colombia, which is trying to ensure that the 7,000 FARC combatants and their leaders reenter society instead of going back to war.
If Santos’ successor turns out to be Petro, the accord shouldn’t see any modifications, according to his campaign statements. His primary task would be to assure the proper implementation of what was agreed and to moderate the resistance from the enemies of the peace process.
The greatest challenge for Colombia’s next president lies in overcoming the political, judicial, financial, and administrative obstacles that have so far slowed-down the process, hurdles that must be dealt with to turn this peace dream into reality, and allow the country to unleash its great potential.