Although talks between FARC rebels and the Colombian government have made little progress since they first began in October, President Juan Manuel Santos has announced that he wants to put the terms of a peace treaty up for popular vote.
Yesterday, Santos announced he will submit a bill (El Espectador has its full text) to Congress which would allow an eventual peace agreement to be approved via a referendum. Although the country’s laws prohibit referendums to be linked to general elections, Santos is seeking an exception which would tie it to either the upcoming legislative election in March or the presidential election in May. According to El Pais, this is in order to allow the referendum a chance to receive the 7.5 million votes (25 percent of the electorate) it needs to be approved.
President Santos claimed passing the bill was a matter of urgency. “If we reach agreements and reach them by the end of the year as we all want, and don't have any way to have a referendum, it would be gravely irresponsible to not have foreseen this possibility,” he said.
The announcement was backed by the National Unity coalition, the umbrella group of major parties which support Santos, which means lawmakers will likely pass the measure without much debate. Colombia’s W Radio reports that it may even be signed into law by November.
The notion of holding a referendum on the peace agreement is not new. The administration first floated the idea in January, in response to the FARC’s calls for a constituent assembly. While the guerrilla group is still openly against organizing a referendum, doing so makes plenty of sense. In addition to involving the general public in the peace process, it provides an immediate incentive for the FARC to adapt to democratic politics, as the guerrillas would have to make their demands acceptable to not only the government, but to the general public as well.
There are, however, questions about the timing of Santos’ announcement. Because the two parties have only come to an agreement on one of five points after thirteen rounds of talks in Havana, it seems unrealistic to expect a full-fledged peace treaty to be hashed out by next March. Semana magazine reports that lawmakers of the opposition Democratic Pole party have voiced concerns that Santos’ announcement may be an attempt to put pressure on the rebels to speed up negotiations. The party’s leadership has requested a meeting with Santos before they take a position on the referendum, in order to determine “how advanced the conversations are” with the FARC.
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