Colombia's President Tries to Keep the Peace Deal

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Summary

In Colombia, politics may get in the way of the government's hard-won peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The four-year peace process has long been a target of criticism from conservative Colombian politicians, many of whom consider aspects of the deal too lenient. In its current iteration, for instance, the truce — which has yet to receive final approval from the legislature — prescribes the creation of transitional courts where FARC members could confess wartime crimes in exchange for amnesty. From the perspective of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, the transitional courts are an essential component of the peace deal because they provide a legal safeguard for the amnesty promised to the group. Without them, the FARC would have less incentive to demobilize since a future administration could simply renege on the pardon.

But former President Alvaro Uribe's Democratic Center party has consistently spoken out against the transitional court provision, among others. And depending on the outcome in 2018 of Colombia's next presidential election, the party may have the chance to act on its objections. A former adviser to Uribe said Feb. 10 that if the Democratic Center wins power in the vote, it will revisit the terms of the accord that demonstrate "tolerance toward drug trafficking," including the guarantee of amnesty. In the meantime, the outgoing Santos administration is using its last year in office to prepare for that contingency.

Analysis

The Democratic Center's prospects for reaching the presidency appear far better heading into the 2018 elections than they did in 2014 during the last presidential vote. In that race, the party's nominee, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, lost by 4 percentage points in a runoff against the incumbent Santos. But today, the ruling National Unity coalition is fracturing after nearly 15 years in power. Most of its major constituent parties, including Cambio Radical and the Colombian Liberal Party, plan to run their own candidates in the upcoming elections, in addition to the coalition's candidate. The crowded field of contestants could split the National Unity coalition's voter base, giving the Democratic Center an advantage — and a shot at overhauling the peace deal.

Aware of the risk, the administration is looking for ways to protect the deal even after it leaves power. The Constitutional Court, for example, is considering whether the government could add a provisional article to the Colombian Constitution that would effectively require future administrations to implement the peace deal. The addition would make the process of overturning or modifying the agreement more difficult for Santos' successors. Should the court decide that such a measure is legally permissible, the government could use the same strategy to shield the deal's more controversial aspects, such as the transitional courts, from future tampering. (The court may determine, however, that the amendments would need to be put to a public referendum — a finding that would likely deter the government from pursuing them.)

If the Colombian government manages over the next year to both demobilize the FARC and safeguard the peace deal from future challenges, the Democratic Center would have a tough time revising the accord, were it to win office. To do so, a future administration would have to undertake the onerous process of reversing a constitutional amendment and brave what could be a lengthy legal battle. The next government will still have other options for disrupting or destabilizing the peace process, though. It could, for instance, try to impede cooperation between the transitional courts and the Ministry of Justice. With that in mind, Santos will try to complete as much of the FARC demobilization process as possible before the 2018 vote in hopes that the deal will withstand the next administration, regardless of who wins office.

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