After four years of negotiations, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia announced a bilateral ceasefire June 23, theoretically marking the end of the longest armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere by specifying procedures for the FARC to disarm and integrate into political life in Colombia.
Dates were set for the signing of the final peace agreement among leaders and for civil society to approve or disapprove of the agreement Sept. 26 and Oct. 2, respectively. When the final agreement was signed by leaders in Cartagena, the general atmosphere was optimistic, and polls predicted that an overwhelming majority of voters would go to the polls Oct. 2 and vote “yes.”
However, on the day of the plebiscite, the “no” vote won by an incredibly narrow majority of 50.21 percent, compared to 49.78 percent who voted “yes.” This unforeseen result garnered surprising reactions on both a national and international scale. Newspaper headlines in and out of the country spoke of the shocking outcome of the plebiscite: Colombia had voted against the peaceful resolution to the armed conflict.
Many analysts and media sources pointed to former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez as one of those responsible for the unanticipated “no” vote result due to his position as a consistently staunch opponent of the government and the peace negotiations. After the cease-fire agreement was announced in Havana in June, the president-turned-congressman, along with other conservative political leaders, initiated a strong media campaign against the peace accord.
The week before the Oct. 2 plebiscite vote, Uribe was a guest on radio and television outlets in the country campaigning in favor of the “no” vote. The message on behalf of the “no” campaign was much shorter, clearer and forceful than the “yes” campaign’s message, as the latter’s campaign strategists thought the slogan of peace would, in itself, resolve the dispute in its favor. On the other hand, the “no” campaign, knowing that national surveys favored the “yes” position, developed a strong media strategy at the regional level that ultimately won it the majority.
In an interview with the newspaper La República, the “no” campaign manager, Juan Carlos Vélez, revealed that campaign’s main strategy sought to target certain groups out of the Colombian population: Low-income communities were told guerrillas would receive economic benefits upon disarmament, while the middle and upper classes were told that the agreements would promise impunity for guerrilla leaders.
He also explained how, in the border regions with Venezuela, organizers focused on arguing how the “yes” vote would make Colombia into a Chavista regime. In short, the overall campaign strategy was to outrage voters rather than to win their favor through argumentation or reason. The campaign did not rely on an explanation of the Havana agreement, nor on specific qualms with the peace deal.
Even so, it would be inaccurate to say all those who voted against the peace did so because of a campaign’s tailored, anger-based strategy. Many sectors of Colombian society conscientiously voted for this option. However, we must recognize that the “no” campaign used a marketing strategy of outrage that proved effective in this election.
The results of the Colombian plebiscite do not indicate that the people were skeptical of peace or that the public has turned its back on President Juan Santos, a man who won the re-election in 2014 with 50.95 percent of the vote. What the plebiscite shows is that strong marketing and advertising strategies such as those employed by Uribe’s campaign can greatly influence elections and public opinion. Knowing how to sell a product, how to appeal to the emotionality of the public and, in this case, how to sell a certain vote can generate friction with the actual exercise of democracy, through which ideas and arguments should be discussed.
Oscar Amaya is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Spanish and Portugese.