July 18, 2014

Colombia’s new legislature brings fresh challenges to peace process

When Colombia’s legislature is sworn in on Sunday to a four-year term, peace will be at the center of the political debate.

When Colombia’s congress is seated on Sunday it may set the stage for one of President Juan Manuel Santos’ fiercest political battles yet: winning approval for the peace process.

Santos’ U Party will be the biggest single block in a fractured congress, with 58 of 256 seats spread across the senate and chamber of deputies.

The ruling party’s legislative alliances should give it the votes needed when it comes to legislating peace. But across the aisle, it will be facing a fierce challenger: Santos’ former boss and one-time backer, ex-President Alvaro Uribe, who is taking a senate seat for his Centro Democrático party and has been a vocal critic of peace talks.

The Centro Democrático controls 31 seats in the senate and chamber, making it the fourth largest party overall. But the numbers don’t begin to capture the influence Uribe might exert with his congressional megaphone, said Patricia Muñoz Yi, a professor and political analyst at the Javeriana University in Bogotá.

“Uribe has the capacity to build and shape public opinion,” she said. “And the peace process is going to hit the obstacle of his strong opposition.”

After more than 50 years of civil conflict that has left more than 220,000 dead, the Santos administration began negotiating with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), about 20 months ago.

The talks are taking place in Cuba behind closed doors, but many of the issues being debated will require congress to pass laws and regulations to make them viable. Among those items are the FARC’s future in politics and establishing rural development policies.

“Congress is going to play a fundamental role” in shaping the peace process, said Marcela Escandón, the director of the Observatorio Legislativo congressional watchdog group. And those debates will not only give Uribe a soapbox but test the bonds of the party alliances Santos has built.

During his tight reelection in May, Santos rallied parties from across the political spectrum around the idea of advancing the peace talks. But those allies — from the center-left Polo Democrático to the shaky alliance with the center-right Conservative party — have differing visions on how to reach the peace.

“Belonging to the governing coalition does not mean unanimity,” Escandón explained.

Some of those differences were on show this week, as the negotiating committees in Havana were preparing to tackle the issue of how to recognize and compensate victims of the conflict.

Sen. Mauricio Lizcano is a member of the ruling U Party whose father, a former legislator, was kidnapped by the FARC in 2000 and escaped eight years later. On Friday, Lizcano said he feared that the victims of guerrilla violence like his father are being overshadowed by those who were victims of the state.

The issue of victims’ rights “is the most important part of the peace process,” he said. “If the victims are satisfied with the process then it’s a process that has worked.”

He’s also concerned that the FARC have not explicitly acknowledged their crimes.

“How can we forgive if they’re not asking for forgiveness,” he said.

Even so, he said he’s firmly behind peace.

“The congress has a clear mandate from the Colombian people who want peace,” he said.

The most critical point for the process may come when talks finish and the agreement goes before voters for approval. Santos has suggested that may happen as early as this year. While the mechanism for that approval has not been established yet, analysts say it will give Uribe and his supporters another chance to undermine the agreement.

During that campaign, Uribe and his candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga convinced many that Santos was being soft on the guerrillas and that negotiators were sacrificing justice in the name of peace. Zuluaga pulled 45 percent of the electorate and almost 7 million voters.

J.J. Rendón, a political strategist who helped Santos win reelection, said Santos will have to step up his communication campaign to defend the peace deal.

“Imagine if a valid idea dies or doesn’t prosper because of poor marketing,” Rendón said. “Peace is a just cause but just causes aren’t always sold well or explained.”

During a party convention this week, Uribe continued the pressure, suggesting that the administration has been downplaying ongoing guerrilla attacks. He also echoed concerns that many FARC fronts won’t accept a peace deal.

“Talk of peace cannot be used to obscure deteriorating security,” he said. “Without security, it’s impossible to consolidate peace.”

There are other items on the congressional agenda. Among the most closely watched is the issue of presidential terms. Santos says he will push for a constitutional amendment that will allow for a single six-year term, rather than two four-year terms.

Uribe, who was president from 2002-2010, lost a bid to change the constitution and run for a third term.

The legislature is also expected to tackle health and justice reforms.

But Lizcano said that everything will take a back seat to peace.

“The primary issue of the next four years,” he said, “is peace and post-conflict.”

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