Does Santos have what it takes to put an eventual Havana Accord in place?

On September 23rd last year in Havana, Cuba , Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and FARC rebel leader Timoleón Jiménez found their hands clasped in a firm shake, a symbol of the two leaders’ promise to sign a peace deal within the next six months. Days ahead of the March 23rd deadline, the leaders’ pledge seems to have lost importance. That could be a mixed blessing for Santos and the FARC: mainly because both sides naturally need more time to agree on final terms, but also because a separate political drama is unfolding in Bogotá and the whole Havana peace agreement hinges on it. The new test is whether Santos’ peace coalition back home is strong enough to implement an eventual accord. Does the president have what it takes?

President Santos has promised he will put his Havana deal to the people for their approval before putting it into place. Santos wants a plebiscite to act as the referendum mechanism. A plebiscite would provide Santos with time to campaign for a ‘yes’ and the opposition to campaign in favor of a ‘no’ without the complexity of a bullet-point referendum. This is the easiest way for Santos to secure buy-in from the people.

Secondly, Santos needs constitutional reforms that let his administration expedite certain measures faster than otherwise. What this boils down to is fewer debates in congress to pass more peace laws in a shorter period of time. The stakes are high. If the president cannot show the FARC that his political capital is strong enough to push their deal through congress, the guerrilla could use that weakness for leverage on the deal, or simply not sign it. Even if the FARC do not put up a fuss over sources of uncertainty, a peace deal still means nothing if it is not implemented with constitutional legitimacy. Santos needs to keep his political alliance intact for passing a constitutional reform.

A number of things could get in the way of smooth sailing. Since February, Colombia’s constitutional court has been evaluating whether or not Santos’ interpretation of the plebiscite is a constitutionally abiding mechanism for ratifying the peace deal. The government expects a ruling soon that will determine the conditions of the plebiscite, Colombia’s Office of the High Commissioner for Peace told Shipwreck. If the constitutional court rules against the plebiscite, Santos could run into trouble finding an alternative referendum mechanism.

Another chief obstacle is former president and current senator Alvaro Uribe and his Centro Democrático party, which has opposed key terms of Santos’ peace deal. The party is especially opposed to the terms of a partial deal on transitional justice on the grounds that Santos’ team is negotiating peace with impunity. Instead of a plebiscite, Uribe’s party wants a national constituent assembly to guide the implementation of the Havana agreement. If Santos has to yield to a national constituent assembly instead, Centro Democrático could wrestle power away from Santos’ administration, says one legal source who monitors congressional debates. The overarching questions here are how much Uribe will irritate the passage of constitutional reforms key for putting the Havana Accords in place, and how much that would antagonize the FARC.

Santos met on February 24th with party leaders and congressional heavyweights to consolidate his peace coalition. Everyone but Centro Democrático was on board. However, perennial hardliner Uribe could cozy up to certain terms of support in the Havana deal, realizing that trading his political capital for certain legislative conditions might be more practical. Uribe’s party supported a reform to Colombia’s Ley de Orden Publico, which defines demobilization zones for the FARC. The reform keeps disarmed guerrillas out of urban centers, a condition Centro Democrático proposed, according to political blog La Silla Vacia. If Santos finds himself without the political support he needs, he could reshuffle his cabinet, dealing out posts in return for party support, a source told Shipwreck. The resignation of energy minister Tomás González on March 7th opens up a position for Santos to use in his favor.

As much as the Santos government doesn’t want to make the policy of peace ‘political’, the Havana Accord will not be a state policy. It will be a proposal. The president faces the challenge to muscle congressional representatives, as well as local political leaders into supporting his proposal. Moreover, it’s not just congress that Santos has to convince, it’s the Colombian people and their belief that the deal is for real. Not an easy road for a president with approval ratings hovering around 25%.

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