Colombia after the elections

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Sunday's presidential election breathed new life into Colombia's peace process when President Juan Manuel Santos made a dramatic turnaround in the presidential runoff vote. On May 25, challenger Oscar Iván Zuluaga, a hardliner whose demands would have all but ended negotiations, won the first round by 3 points. In a highly negative campaign with allegations of corruption hurled from both sides, Santos came back to win by 6 points in the second round on June 15.

The United States has a stake in Colombia's future, having spent $8 billion since 2000 to help the Colombian military defeat narco-traffickers and guerrilla insurgents. A successful peace process and an end to the conflict is essential to assure sustainable economic development and democratic governance for Colombia, and thus satisfy the United States' interests in a strong state capable of effectively partnering with the U.S. and other neighbors to address the drug problem.

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Colombia's war is no brushfire. This 50-year conflict has produced the world's second-largest population of internally displaced persons of 5 million people and over 200,000 dead.

The way the key stakeholders interpret the election results will have important ramifications for Colombia's future. On the campaign trail, Santos spoke repeatedly about the need to continue the peace talks with the same team that has achieved progress during 18 months of talks in Havana, Cuba.

Losing candidate Zuluaga represented former President Alvaro Uribe's Democratic Center party, which considers the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas to be terrorists rather than political combatants. This party insisted on conditions that amounted to capitulation by the guerrillas before it would consider negotiations — conditions that have been so far unacceptable to a force weakened, but not defeated, by military means. Pro-peace civil society groups, labor unions and political parties came out in force to back Santos. And while Zuluaga graciously accepted his defeat, Uribe responded angrily and irresponsibly to the outcome, accusing Santos of carrying out fraud without providing any evidence. From his perch as a newly elected senator, Uribe is likely to bitterly oppose any settlement to the conflict.

Santos has his work cut out for him. To maintain support for the peace process, Santos will need to convince the public that peace is not merely an end in itself, but rather a precondition to growing the economy, reducing and alleviating poverty and creating jobs. He will also need to work hard to build coalitions on specific issues with the conservative Democratic Center and Conservative parties, as well as the leftist Patriotic Pole and Green Alliance.

On the other side of the table, FARC needs to understand that while a majority of the Colombian public supports the peace process, they expect guerrillas who are guilty of human rights abuses to be held accountable. And public opinion is bolstered by international law. The 2002 Rome Statutes now require that persons found responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity be brought to justice, negating the possibility of blanket amnesties that once characterized the end to civil wars.

A history of inequality and exclusionary, elitist politics gave rise to the armed conflict 50 years ago. It has been fueled and prolonged by the entry of drug cartels in the 1970s and the creation of paramilitary forces to protect large agrarian interests. All of the armed actors, including the military, have been guilty of human rights abuses.

A sustainable peace in Colombia and national reconciliation will require an acknowledgement of responsibility by all of the combatants as well as the political and social actors who backed them. Beyond the end to the conflict, it will require addressing the structural imbalances that created a vastly unequal distribution of land and income in Colombia, and repairing some of the harms done to the 6 million victims of the conflict.

There has been progress: on June 7, an agreement between the government and FARC acknowledged shared responsibility and promised no impunity for war criminals. The agreement put victims' rights front and center and will bring victims' voices to the negotiating table for the first time.

Finally, there is the troubling fact that only 47 percent of the population even bothered to vote — a figure more akin to the U.S. voting patterns than the higher turnouts normal in much of Latin America. Colombia's political class should take note and adopt political and electoral reforms to ensure their political system effectively represents the voices and needs of all Colombians.

McCoy is Distinguished University Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. She directs the Americas Program at the Carter Center and is co-chair of the Atlanta Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network.