Elections and Crisis: The Case of Colombia’s Peace Referendum

From the Series: Crisis of Liberalism

Photo by Alfredo Gauro Ambrosi.

Contemporary narratives of political crisis portray rational liberal systems falling prey to dangerous populist leaders. Think of Trumpism in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and the list goes on. These views revive a familiar antidemocratic sentiment central to liberal thought: voters are naturally susceptible to emotional manipulation and easily seduced by divisive rhetoric that contradicts liberal tenets of fairness, equality, and liberty. Liberal thinkers, politicians, and technocrats in very different contexts have proposed correctives (e.g., electoral reforms, civic education programs, mechanisms to ensure checks and balances, and freedom of the press) to defend the ideals of liberalism at times when the legitimating principle of liberal democracy—the will of the people—may also constitute its biggest threat.

In this piece, I look at the crisis rhetoric surrounding the peace referendum in Colombia, and suggest that narratives of crisis serve as an adaptive mechanism for liberalism to respond to its political times. Crises present unique opportunities for liberal politics—and for capitalism, its close relative—to reinvent itself (see Graeber 2012). Not coincidentally, crises are especially prevalent during elections. A good crisis during (or resulting in) elections can help crystallize political projects that may profoundly reimagine citizenship (Warren 2003) or propose reforms to institutions, imbuing liberal tenets with new meaning (Coles 2007).


¿Apoya usted el acuerdo final para terminar el conflicto y construir una paz estable y duradera?1

On October 2, 2016, 50.2 percent of Colombians voted to reject the 297-page peace accord between the government and the FARC guerrillas. Some sixty-three percent of Colombians did not vote at all. The document established a technical roadmap for comprehensive social, political, and economic reforms. Campaigns for and against the accord activated narratives of crises and opportunity—of what Colombia could become given this historic opportunity.

Aware that Colombians who had not read the document would ultimately decide the fate of peace, proponents and detractors of the peace accord launched aggressive pedagogical efforts to educate—and in some cases deceive—voters. The “Yes” and “No” campaigns combined the question of peace with different, equally heartfelt social issues that related tangentially to the peace accord and that proved effective in swaying voters.

“Yes” championed a view of peace based on equality before the law, and on promoting everyday respect for social, cultural, and sexual diversity. With a strong emphasis on giving a platform to traditionally disenfranchised groups, “Yes” gathered progressives from Bogotá and people from rural areas who have suffered war firsthand, as well as organizations of women, peasants, LGBTQ activists, youth, ethnic groups, and others. These groups defended a version of peace tied to government accountability, government decentralization, the defense of individual, social, and economic rights, and progressive social causes like the protection of the environment.

In almost symmetrical opposition, “No” collected socially conservative groups. Detractors of the peace accord claimed to want peace, but not the peace outlined in the document, which they considered a reward for FARC after decades of harming Colombians. “No” proposed instead a punitive version of peace with extended prison sentences for FARC and limited participation in politics for FARC members. “No” feared what Colombia could become if FARC were to fully reintegrate into society without due punishment. Under the slogan of Castrochavismo, “No” agitated public fears of a socialist Colombia—similar to Venezuela and Cuba—disdainful of private property, religious freedom, and Christian family values.

Prior to the referendum, the two camps clashed on a variety of issues loosely related to the peace accord. First came the government’s sexual education manuals, promoting respect for gender diversity. Then came the call for a referendum that would reverse the Constitutional Court’s ruling allowing same-sex couples to adopt children (paradoxically promoted by a senator from the Liberal party). Both times, “No” organized demonstrations calling on citizens to protect family values and to reject the accord. “No” raised support by falsely claiming that the accord would impose a “gender ideology” contrarian to Christian morality. “Yes” speedily responded with aggressive—yet ultimately ineffective—face-to-face and digital campaigns defending the right to difference, which did not reach people beyond those already converted.

Today, there’s little clarity as what comes next. “No” won in the polls, while “Yes” has been bolstered by President Santos’s Nobel Peace Prize win and multitudinous demonstrations. Proposals include everything from renegotiating the accords to convening a new constitutional assembly. What’s clear, however, is that the referendum was a mechanism to articulate conservative and progressive visions of political inclusion that exceeded the peace accord, seeking to modify rights consecrated in the Constitution of 1991. While “Yes” intended to expand participation rights, under the banner of “reconciliation,” “No” promoted a traditionalist political vision that, as shown, could impact the legal standing of nontraditional families. Through democratic procedure, a razor-thin majority of Colombians animated by catholic sentiments ultimately sanctioned a conservative political project of penance and revenge.

The case of Colombia underscores that crises are not necessarily revolutions. Instead, crises are turning points within established trajectories. The worldwide sentiment that liberalism is in crisis may well be inaugurating new lexicons of citizenship restricting the meaning of equality, all within the formal confines of liberalism. I find these subtleties terrifying.


1. This was the text of the referendum, which asked, in English: “Do you support the peace accord to end the armed conflict and build a stable and enduring peace?”


Coles, Kimberley. 2007. Democratic Designs: International Intervention and Electoral Practices in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Graeber, David. 2012. Debt: The First Five-Thousand Years. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Warren, Kay B. 2003. “Voting Against Indigeous Rights in Guatemala.” In Indigenous Movements, Self-Representation, and the State in Latin America, edited by Jean E. Jackson and Kay B. Warren, 149–80. Austin: University of Texas Press.