Colombia faces Brexit-style ‘great dilemma’ in vote to end war with Farc

In a plebiscite this year, Colombians will accept or reject a peace deal between the government and Farc guerrillas to end more than half a century of war

There’s nothing Alexa Sarmiento would like better than to see her country at peace. Having grown up in Colombia’s violence-plagued eastern plains region, she has seen more than her share of conflict.

But Sarmiento says she’s unsure if she will vote yes or no in a plebiscite later this year in which Colombians will be asked to accept or reject a peace deal between the government and leftist Farc guerrillas that would end more than half a century of war.

“I do want the conflict to end, but it seems to me like the government has given in too much to the Farc,” says Sarmiento, 19, who is studying to become a social worker.

“But if I vote no, then what?” she asks herself. “Fifty more years of war? Is it responsible to do that?”

Many Colombians find themselves in a similar predicament. The peace accords that have yet to be finalised, and the country is bracing for a heated campaign for the “yes” and “no” votes in the plebiscite, which could come by the end of September.

The outcome will be binding, according to a ruling handed down on Monday by the constitutional court.

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Like the EU referendum in Britain, it’s a risky proposition: a simple yes/no vote over a complicated deal which is broadly supported by the international community, but which provokes visceral rancour among many ordinary voters.

Most Colombians who plan to vote say they would approve the accords, but some analysts warn that widespread hostility to the Farc could lead to a surprise outcome.

In the latest Gallup poll, of the 40% of respondents who said they would definitely vote in the plebiscite, 70% said they would support the agreements between the Farc and government.

But in a separate poll by Ipsos, 84% said they believed Farc leaders should pay for their crimes in prison, although the accords reached in Havana specify that guerrillas who confess would be eligible to alternative sentences and do no jail time at all. More than 70% say the leaders should not be allowed to participate in politics, which the accords would allow.

“Colombians face a great dilemma,” said political analyst Fernando Giraldo. “They want peace [but] they don’t want it to cost them anything.”

The battle for votes began to take shape in the opening session of Congress on Wednesday, with parties allied with the government waving posters reading “Yes to peace” while opposition lawmakers from the right-of-centre Centro Democrático party held up placards with an image of the Colombian flag and a black ribbon of mourning.

Groups opposed to the deal – led by former president Alvaro Uribe, who is now a senator – say they too want peace but not at any price.

Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos, who was not legally obligated to call a vote on the accords, has said since the negotiations with the rebels began in 2012 that the Colombian people would have the last word on a peace deal. But the peace process has failed to generate the enthusiasm one might expect from a society that has lived with war for so long.

Santos has made the peace process with the Farc a banner of his presidency. While those efforts have won him international praise at home his approval rating dipped to just 21% – even lower than even beleaguered Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro next door – before recovering slightly last month to 30%.

Santos has tried to send the message that voters need not support him to support peace. “Peace is not mine. Peace is not my government’s,” he said in an address to a joint session of congress Wednesday.

Santos has said that if the “no” vote wins, the peace process ends and the country will have lost its best chance to end a conflict that has killed some 230,000 people – mostly civilians – and displaced more than six million. Tens of thousands of people have been forcibly disappeared and thousands have been maimed by landmines.

A Farc commander who goes by the name Alberto Camacho seemed certain that Colombians would vote in favour of the accords. “I cannot believe that in a country where so many people have suffered so much, more than half of the population would reject a peace deal,” he said in a recent interview with the Guardian.

But critics say that the agreements reached in Havana with the Farc will set the stage for further violence in the country. “Experience has shown that a bad negotiation brings more violence,” says senator Ernesto Macias, of Uribe’s Centro Democrático party.

Even before the plebiscite was approved by the constitutional court, the party had started a campaign of “civil resistance” against the accords, collecting signatures throughout the country.

The Centro Democrático party has not yet decided whether it will campaign for a “no” vote in the plebiscite or call on its followers to stay away from the polls altogether, says Macías.

Despite the poll numbers appearing to favour the “yes” vote, Giraldo says it would be dangerous to believe approval of the accords is a foregone conclusion.

“We could face a situation similar to the United Kingdom with the Brexit vote,” he said. “In these issues that touch such fundamental emotions, you can’t count on any given outcome.”

Consultant María Pabon, 54 said she harbours anger toward the Farc for the atrocities they committed during their decades-long fight, but her choice for peace is clear.

“I will be pragmatic and vote yes,” she says. “But I will do it with a broken heart.”

the Guardian |Sibylla Brodzinsky

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