Hopeful Milestone or Cause for Concern? Understanding the Risks Behind Colombia’s Upcoming Presidential Election

A boy sits with drums painted in Colombia's colors
Photo by Jean-Pierre Larroque

Since the signing of the 2016 comprehensive peace agreement between the Colombian government and Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) rebels, there has been renewed international attention given to the various peace processes within the country. This is particularly true as Colombia begins to prepare for the May 27 presidential election. The upcoming election will occur at a precarious time in the peace process. Democratic Center, the political party of former president Alvaro Uribe, has taken a hard line against various parts of the 2016 comprehensive peace agreement. Equally, the Democratic Center is projected to do well in the elections, adding significant uncertainty to the future of Colombia’s peace process with the FARC.

What may further complicate this already tenuous situation is the fact that postwar elections often increase the risk of renewed fighting between combatants. Much of the recent research on civil war recurrence underscores the risks associated with the initial postwar democratic reforms as elections often reignite wartime tensions and increase uncertainty over who will maintain control of the country. Elections led to renewed fighting in Angola in 1992, Cote d’Ivoire in 2010, Uganda in 1980, and even in Colombia following the nascent peace process in the late 1980s. What, then, can this research tell us about the upcoming Colombian elections? Though elections tend to threaten post-conflict stability, past research on elections and civil war recurrence suggests that the continued participation of the FARC in Colombia’s democratic process should reduce the risk of renewed fighting as a result of the upcoming elections.

Elections and Civil War Recurrence

Though democracy is broadly associated with less armed conflict, the initial postwar elections that often occur after the signing of a peace agreement increase the risk of renewed fighting between rebels and the government. This common theme in armed conflict is particularly troublesome for international peacebuilding efforts that tend to emphasize democratic reforms as part of any settlement. There are a number of reasons why elections pose such a great threat to nascent peace processes. Post-conflict elections often generate significant uncertainty over who will maintain control of the state. While this may be a cause for concern for many politicians, the stakes are particularly high in the aftermath of civil war where parties are unsure whether the winner of the election will abide by the terms of the settlement or use the army or the national police to settle old scores left over from the civil war. Equally, following years of fighting, rebel groups and the incumbent government often represent the largest and most cohesive organizations (as other civil society groups are often targeted by one or both sides during fighting). Given this point, elections that result from a negotiated settlement often reignite wartime tensions, pushing combatants to campaign on grievances that may have spurred the war in the first place. Equally, combatants who lose an election often simply return to the proverbial bush as a way to contest the results in the hope that the international community will intervene and offer them a place within the new government. This is particularly true for elections that are held shortly after the signing of a settlement as rebels often maintain the capacity to violently contest results and other civil society organizations lack enough time to organize new (or reconstitute old) political parties.

Mitigating Factors

There are some factors that mitigate the risks elections pose for peace processes. For instance, it is generally the first election that is the most precarious, with subsequent elections’ posing less risk to the peace process. Following the first post-conflict election, these subsequent elections offer less uncertainty over the willingness of the government (i.e., the victor in the first postwar election) to abandon the peace process and engage in post-conflict score settling. Equally, the longer the time between the termination of fighting between disputants and the first election, the lower the risk of renewed conflict, as this time allows the international community to fully disarm and reintegrate militant groups into civil society (as well as give other parts of society the ability to campaign for office). Finally, provisions that allow for rebel groups to transition to political parties substantially reduce the risk that these parties will abandon the peace process. When governments ban rebel groups from participating in post-conflict elections, these groups often participate in armed conflict as a way to protest the political process.

What Does This Mean for Colombia’s Presidential Election?

While there is no guarantee that the peace process will continue uncontested, there are a number of mitigating factors within this specific case that should give the Colombian people cause for hope. First, Colombia has already held a successful election this past March for the national legislature that has not caused a significant halt to the peace process. Equally, it has been almost two years since the signing of the 2016 comprehensive peace agreement, thereby reducing some of the salience surrounding this postwar election. This is not to say that continued violence in rural areas (such as targeted killings) is not cause for concern. Rather, the time since the passage of the agreement reduces the risk tied specifically to the election (as opposed to other factors that may destabilize the peace process). Finally, though the Democratic Center has protested the inclusion of the FARC as a legal political party, the group is allowed to participate in the elections. As long as the organization is allowed to participate in the post-conflict political process, there is less incentive for former rebels to abandon conventional politics and return to armed conflict.

Again, there is no guarantee that the peace process will last, particularly if hard-line elements in society work to undermine the implementation of the settlement. A key risk associated with these elections is that if there is a significant leadership change within the country, there may be a halt to certain aspects of the peace process (undermining faith in the agreement). With that in mind, though, the continued implementation of the electoral reform provisions within the 2016 agreement provide cause for hope that Colombia’s recent peace process will not resemble other efforts that have failed to provide durable peace.