Conflicting poll data emerging from Colombia has brought into focus one of the main hurdles remaining for a peace deal with the country's FARC guerrillas -- convincing the Colombian people to vote for it.
Three different opinion polls covering the peace process between the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) have come out in recent weeks. Each one paints a very different picture of public support for the process and the likelihood of a "yes" vote in the referendum the government is planning to publicly ratify the final agreement. The two sides are expected to sign that accord in the coming months.
In the most recent poll, commissioned by the government and seen by El Tiempo, the results are reassuring for supporters of the peace process. According to El Tiempo, the poll showed 57 percent of respondents are likely to vote in the referendum, and of those prospective voters, 65 percent will vote "yes," 26 percent "no," while 8 percent are undecided. In addition, 54 percent replied they believed it was probable the FARC and the government would come to a final peace agreement.
The figures stand in stark contrast to another poll published shortly before, which was commissioned by media outlets Semana, RCN and La FM. In this poll, 63 percent of the respondents felt pessimistic about the prospects for a final peace accord, compared to 35 percent who felt optimistic. Half of respondents said they would vote against a deal in the referendum, compared to just 39 percent who would approve it, and 11 percent who were undecided.
These latest polls follow another commissioned by El Tiempo newspaper and W Radio that depicts a much more closely fought battle over the fate of the peace process. In this poll, 34 percent said they would reject the deal, 29 percent would approve it, 27 percent said they would abstain from voting, 8 percent said they were undecided and 2 percent did not respond.
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As the FARC and the Colombian government inch towards a final deal after nearly four years of negotiations, the public vote on the agreement will be one of the last obstacles Colombia's peace process will face. While it remains uncertain how the government and the guerrillas would react to a rejection, it is clear such a decision would have a huge impact for both Colombia's conflict and for organized crime in the country.
While opinion polls appear to show a deeply conflicted electorate when it comes to this vote, there are numerous reasons not to put too much weight on the polls coming out of Colombia at this stage.
Firstly, the FARC and the government have yet to sign a final peace agreement, and although this is now extremely likely to happen, the poll numbers show there remains a large degree of skepticism among the populace that a final deal will be struck -- skepticism that may soften once a deal is in place. In addition, while much of what the agreement will contain is public knowledge, the precise and complete contents are not. This may also be fueling cynicism among a Colombian population with little trust for either side of the negotiating table.
Aside from these uncertainties, the relevance of the results to the final vote is also questionable. Early polling data is generally volatile and subject to fluctuations as campaigns for and against the process take shape. This unpredictability is compounded by Colombia's frequently unreliable polls, which struggle to accurately reflect the views of a hugely diverse nation.
One thing is clear, however. Public approval of the peace deal is far from a foregone conclusion, and the "yes" campaign faces a serious challenge in convincing Colombians to vote to end the half-century-old conflict between the state and the FARC.
Both the "yes" and the "no" supporters are only now beginning to launch their campaigns, and much may depend on how well they articulate their message and tap into voter concerns in the coming months.
Opposition to the deal has coalesced around the Centro Democrático political party and its controversial but still hugely popular leader, former President Alvaro Uribe. Throughout the negotiations, Uribe has been the most vocal critic of the peace process and has accused President Juan Manuel Santos of "handing the country over to terrorism."
In recent years, Uribe has been beset by scandals involving the alleged paramilitary and criminal ties of his close allies and members of his administration, and today he is a far more divisive and less popular figure than when he left office with sky high approval ratings in 2011. However, he still retains the unrelenting support of a large proportion of the population, and his handpicked anti-peace process candidate came close to defeating Santos in the last presidential election. His 'no' campaign also enjoys the tacit backing of several major news channels that make little attempt to conceal their opposition to the peace process.
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Throughout the process, Uribe has expertly played on the fears and resentments of many Colombians, especially over the sense the guerrillas are escaping lightly for the crimes committed during the war and concerns over their future role in Colombian politics. In the recent Semana/RCN/La FM poll, 88 percent of respondents felt the FARC should face prison time after demobilizing, and 75 percent said they should not be able to participate in politics. As currently written, the agreement says demobilized rebels will not go to prison if they cooperate fully with transitional justice authorities.
While the "no" campaign is broadly united under the banner of Uribe and the Centro Democrático, the "yes" campaign is a tenuous coalition that incorporates a broad range of political currents, including the leftist parties that are the government's harshest critics on many other issues. In stark contrast to the role of Uribe for "no" campaigners, the figurehead of this coalition -- President Santos -- may prove to be its weak point.
The FARC have little credibility among much of the war-weary Colombian electorate, making faith the government can deliver on its promises of peace key to the "yes" campaign. This has been reflected throughout the process, as there has long been a correlation between negative perceptions of the president and his government and pessimism around the peace process. Currently reeling from several political crises unrelated to the peace process, Santos' approval rating was just 25 percent compared to 54 percent for Uribe in the Semana/RCN/La FM poll.
A long campaign trial lies ahead for both the "yes" and "no" supporters, and the final vote will come down to much more than a popularity contest between the president and his predecessor. However, the fluctuating poll numbers stand as a warning for supporters of the peace process; they face a powerful opposition and an uncertain electorate. There may yet be some unexpected twists in Colombia's road to peace.