Publish in Perspectives - Wednesday, June 21, 2017
If business is successful at engaging rural areas in a strategic way, they are likely to weaken the FARC’s rhetoric, and obtain important first-mover advantages, the author points out. (Photo: Colombia Senate)
The private sector is right to view the FARC’s engagement in politics with skepticism.
BY SERGIO GUZMÁN
Although lauded internationally as a harbinger for international conflict resolution earning President Juan Manuel Santos the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, the peace agreement signed on November 24, 2016 by the government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group has been met with fierce criticism and has deeply divided Colombians.
A little more than six months after the agreement was formally signed, Colombians are highly skeptical that the parties will actually follow through on it. The cornerstone of the peace deal was that the insurgents would lay down their arms in exchange for more lenient punishment from the state, while committing to eradication of illicit crops and reparation of their victims, while the government commits to undertaking a land reform and allowing the FARC a space to participate in politics. A May 6-11 poll by Invamer suggests that up to 62 percent of Colombians believe that the government will be unable to fulfill what was agreed, while 76 percent are doubtful that the FARC will honor the commitments made.
The upcoming 2018 congressional and presidential elections are being labeled as an unofficial referendum on the deal, with the opposition playing on fears that it will inch Colombia closer towards a Venezuelan-modeled 21st Century Socialist regime. In the meantime, the government is playing defense with the dual purpose of maintaining the delicate ceasefire and successfully disarming the FARC, while touting its achievements in the form of expanded government investments in rural zones.
THE FARC - RALPOLITIK
The real question is: While the government and the opposition fight, what are the FARC up to? Well, they are preparing for their transition into formal politics.
The peace agreement has granted the rebel group six interim spokespeople in the current legislature, with a voice but without a vote. The FARC has appointed six representatives for the Voces movement that were not associated with the group, including left-leaning academics and long-term advocates of victim’s rights. This is bound to change following the group’s disarmament as they will be assigned ten seats in Congress – five in the Senate (upper house) and five in the Chamber of Representatives (lower house) – for the next two legislative periods (2018-22 and 2022-26). Out of the 268 seats, the FARC’s ten will hardly tilt the balance in Congress, and it is unlikely that the group will be able to convert many, if any, ideas into law.
For reference, the existing leftist political party, Democratic Alterative Pole (Polo), has been in Congress since 2005 and currently has five seats in the Senate and three in the Chamber of Representatives. Although the group has been a protagonist in the public debate, not a single one of its bills has become law. The perceived lack of success of the Polo in Congress contrasts with its success in local elections. It has secured the country’s second most powerful publicly elected position (the Mayoralty of Bogotá) three times, and it has also won the Mayoralty of Cali, and the governorship of the southern department of Nariño.
Contrary to what opposition leaders may currently argue, the FARC understands that its political support base is not broad enough to give it sizeable majorities in Congress or even, the presidency in the 2018 elections. This does not mean that the group has given up on its Marxist ideals or its desire to one day rule Colombia. While the government and the opposition are bickering over the fairness of the agreement and have embarked in debates over its constitutionality, the FARC is playing the long game.
THE FARC AGENDA
In particular the FARC will focus its efforts on the areas the government has set aside for the Electoral Districts for Peace – 16 temporary lower house districts located in 167 municipalities in 19 of the country’s 32 departments, including areas in close proximity to FARC concentration zones and camps. The districts are located in areas with large amounts of coca cultivation, where only candidates who are not affiliated to traditional political parties or the FARC can run for seats. Although the opposition is aware of this rule, they will likely accuse the government of drawing the electoral map along partisan lines, as the majority of them (85 percent) are located in areas that voted overwhelmingly in support of the peace agreement in the October 2, 2016 plebiscite.
The FARC’s political platform is likely to center around the following issues:
• Corruption – The recent cases of transnational corruption are likely to play a commanding role in the FARC’s political agenda because they reinforce the notion that the government is stealing from the people – a long held FARC tenant. Moreover, elites who use positions of influence and power are assisted by the capitalist economic model to line their pockets instead of contributing to social welfare. The issues around corruption have galvanized public opinion and created a strong anti-incumbent sentiment which the FARC intends to opportunistically use to its advantage.
• The government’s inability to keep its word – Since the start of the negotiations, the FARC has been wary that the government would not keep its word – particularly with regard to the safety of FARC leaders. This was evident with the marked delays in designation and prior establishment of the concentration zones and camps. The FARC will most likely continue to contend that the government’s lack capacity will is the reason for the delays in the process. The FARC leadership also use the government delays and fears for their safety to justify their delays for disarming. The FARC will also point to recent upticks in social unrest to demonstrate that the government has been unable to meet its longstanding commitments to labor unions and peripheral areas.
• The consistent inability of the government to function in rural areas – The FARC will allude to the fact that in many of the areas where it operated, the state was virtually inexistent. Aside from the occasional presence of military units, often on patrol, state institutions were largely absent in rural areas. The FARC will also use the slow and inefficient contract processing and implementation timing for the government to re-direct investment, particularly tertiary roads, electrification, healthcare and education to solidify its base of support.
• Structural poverty and inequality – According to the latest government statistics, 28 percent of Colombians live below the national poverty line, with 8 percent living in extreme poverty. The overwhelming majority of poor Colombians – including Afro-Colombians and indigenous populations – will continue to concentrate in rural areas. The current projections for economic growth do not suggest this trend will be reversed, unless Colombia can obtain a sustained growth rate above 5 percent – given the global slump of commodity prices, this is unlikely. The FARC is counting on the above staying the same to demonstrate that the current economic model is not conducive to upward mobility and an unequal taxation system will continue accentuating the inequality in the country.
While these points are more likely to reverberate more with the rural electorate than with urban voters, this does not automatically de-legitimize the arguments. The traditional weakness of the national government, particularly in rural zones, provides a strong argument for the FARC and for other left-leaning parties. As it is unlikely that rural votes alone will lead them to the zenith of power, the FARC will have to evolve their political discourse to be able to appeal to urban voters or concentrate on a long-term grassroots campaign to slowly climb the ranks of public elected offices from local administrative councils, to city councils, mayoralties and governorships to congress. Either way, the FARC will have to evolve their political discourse to cater to a broader electorate.
IMPLICATIONS FOR BUSINESS
The private sector is right to view the FARC’s engagement in politics with skepticism, as the former guerillas are likely to advance an anti-capitalist economic agenda. Their objectives once involved in congress and the political debate will be to establish an agenda of economic nationalism, much like the one advocated by the Polo, which involves opposing free trade, promoting tax increases for individuals and businesses and perhaps the nationalization of companies the state recently privatized.
Businesses should not immediately be concerned with the group’s augmented voice, but rather work towards demonstrating that the current economic model and private business, in particular, is a major contributor to economic activity and an instrument for upward mobility for the poor. Advancing strategies to bring business opportunities to rural areas has been a priority for the government, which is offering generous tax benefits for companies willing to enter former conflict zones.
Companies should not shy away from the opportunity that rural Colombia represents, particularly as engagement is likely to quell the popular notion amongst Colombians that business doesn’t care to develop distant areas and that the government will remain the largest source of employment. If business is successful at engaging rural areas in a strategic way, they are likely to weaken the FARC’s rhetoric, and obtain important first-mover advantages.
The FARC is unlikely to obtain significant electoral gains that would position it in charge of the country’s social, political and economic agenda in 2018 and 2022. It is very likely that the group is counting on the country continuing to grapple with issues of pervasive corruption, poverty, and government inability to provide services at the local level.
The FARC will reiterate to an ever-forgetful electorate the fact that it has demobilized and disarmed, and that its fighters have served their sentences – albeit light ones – and played by the government’s rules. However, with little tangible change apparent in the daily lives of voters, those voters may be convinced in the future that Colombia should give 21st Century Socialism an opportunity to govern.
Sergio Guzmán is Control Risks lead analyst for Colombia. Based in Bogotá, he provides business, security and political risk analysis for the Andean Region and has particular experience in the Colombian Conflict, International Conflict Resolution and Development. He wrote this column for Latinvex.
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