Colombia is facing one of its most turbulent election cycles in recent years. This is the first vote in which the Fuerza Armada Revolucionaria de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo (FARC), the former armed guerrilla group, participated as a reformed political party. This development should represent a positive step in advancing the historic peace deal of 2016, in which the rebels agreed to lay down their arms and participate in the political process by forming a party, the Fuerzas Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común. However, violence directed toward campaigning FARC members, along with a refusal by politicians and the public to incorporate the FARC into Colombia’s government poses a serious threat to Colombian democracy and to long-term peace.
The complexities of the peace agreement and the current challenge to Colombian democracy represent the latest developments in a half-century-long conflict. The FARC was founded in 1964 as the armed wing of the local Communist Party after more than a decade of violence and political conflict known as La Violencia, unleashed by the assassination of the popular politician Jorge Gaitán in 1948. Although the group claimed to target government forces and officials, an estimated 220,000 people were killed over the course of the war. Millions more were displaced.
The FARC’s tactics varied dramatically throughout five decades of war, but they consistently brought suffering to many Colombian civilians. The FARC was listed as a terrorist group by the European Union and is still listed as such by the US. The group has conducted bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, drug trafficking, and attacks on infrastructure, and since the 1970s has immersed itself in the drug trade. The group has also ransomed hostages, committing an estimated 3,000 kidnappings in 1999 alone. The FARC has mostly operated in rural areas, dominating certain regions and using landmines to dissuade intrusions; however, it has also attacked urban targets, including bombing the El Nogal club in Bogotá in 2003. Although the FARC directed much of its offensive efforts towards the Colombian military and police, Colombian citizens have not been able to avoid its attacks.
Negotiations between the government and the FARC finally began in 2012, but it took several years for the parties to agree on its terms. When the question of peace was finally put to the public in a referendum, 50.2 percent of voters opposed it. After a brief scramble, the deal was put on the floor of the Colombian Congress instead of being placed before the public for a vote. It was finally ratified on December 1, 2016. The peace deal went into effect the following year, and the FARC surrendered its weapons and agreed to be subjected to justice. The Colombian government promised the new political wing of the group 10 seats in Congress for the first two legislative cycles under the agreement and safeguarded its right to nonviolent political activity. As a result, the FARC has laid down its arms and engaged in campaigns for public office throughout the 2018 election cycle.
Unfortunately, the execution of the peace deal has left much to be desired; two factors threaten, if not preempt, the road to legitimate political power for the new FARC. First, violence directed towards left-leaning social organizers and FARC politicians on the campaign trail has plagued the group’s organizing efforts. In many cases, its candidates fail to draw crowds. Even when people did show up, politicians were pelted with all manner of projectiles, sometimes even bullets. Former FARC fighters have been killed since the peace deal was signed, including activists working for candidates on the campaign trail. As a result, the FARC suspended its legislative campaign in February. Then, in March, its presidential candidate withdrew after health complications, and no new candidate was put forth before the primary election that occurred days later.
Rebel groups constitute another obstacle to peace. Most notable among these is the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), which has continued its guerrilla activity in spite of the peace accord. The FARC was just one of many mercenary groups in the country; failing to properly integrate them into Colombian politics could inform these other groups that disarmament offers little promise. Worse, the assassination attempts and targeting of FARC campaigners and their allies might persuade other rebels that their lives would be in greater danger without their weapons, severely harming prospects for future peace deals in the region. Currently, the ELN does not seem to be convinced by how the Colombian public has treated a legitimized FARC; peace talks with the ELN broke down in late January, coincidentally around the time when it became evident that the FARC was not welcome in the democratic process.
The success or failure of the FARC as a political party in terms of votes or seats is not what should concern observers of Colombian democracy. More alarming is the refusal of certain establishment politicians to normalize the FARC’s participation in Colombian government. For instance, former President Alvaro Uribe has declared that the FARC is not eligible to participate in Colombia’s democracy and pledged to significantly alter the terms of the peace deal if his party won the elections. Crucial to the success of the peace deal is that FARC members can conduct themselves without fear of violence in the political arena, yet their journey so far has been met with opposition and obstacles at every turn. Inhibiting the ability of demilitarized groups like the FARC to compete for political office further incentivizes the political violence that has bedeviled Colombia for decades. Although the FARC has instigated much of that violence and turmoil, refusing to incorporate them under the umbrella of Colombian democracy poses a threat to the integrity of democracy itself. Their discomfort with normalizing FARC is understandable, but Colombians’ desire for justice for the FARC may come with costs to their democracy.
Given the practical and theoretical ramifications of the failure to incorporate the FARC into Colombia’s government, structural flaws in the peace deal threaten to erode Colombia’s democracy. Looking toward the future, similar deals should stipulate that former rebels face justice before their welcome involvement in public affairs. Allowing the FARC to run before having their day in court only adds fuel to their most vehement opponents’ arguments and logistically makes little sense. In the short term, the Colombian government should do what it can to ensure the FARC is protected as a political party by reducing state-sanctioned rhetoric that incentivizes violence and by providing security services to their campaigns. If the FARC cannot participate peacefully in Colombia’s public life, the democracy itself is under grave threat.