During the tumultuous campaign season, the 24-hour news cycle of U.S. politics hardly reported on anything but the election. However, if you seek out international news, you likely heard about the volatile peace accord vote in Colombia one month ahead of U.S. elections.
The president of Colombia, hoping to find popular support for the agreement to end the longest-running conflict in the Western Hemisphere, put it to a binding referendum vote. The idea was to demonstrate buy-in from all Colombians and to make sure people felt included in the peace process.
While many in Colombia do support an end to the conflict, a slim margin of voters, 50.2 percent, rejected the proposed peace accord. The vote revealed just how divided and polarized the country had become over the last four years of peace negotiations. Sound familiar?
Some illuminating parallels were exposed in post-referendum Colombia and post-election United States:
Don’t trust the polls; talk with your neighbors. It sounds trite but bears repeating. The “yes” vote in Colombia was ahead in every poll: two “yes” votes for every “no.” And most polls wrongly predicted the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.
Somewhere in all the forecasting a human element was lost. Instead of talking to people around us, we got caught up in the statistics. Instead of recognizing the lived reality of others, we focused on a dubious numbers game. Neither Colombians, nor most people in the U.S., saw it coming.
Voter turnout matters. Democracies hinge on voters going to the polls. Even for a historic peace deal, Colombia’s trend of low voter turnouts held true. For some it was distrust in political solutions to bring true peace; in several departments, hurricane flooding kept voters at home. In the U.S., voter turnout fell to its lowest point in two decades.
Rural and urban divisions have grown. In Colombia, the overwhelming majority of rural voters — those most affected by the armed conflict — voted for the peace accord. In the large urban centers (with a few exceptions), the people most insulated from the conflict voted no. Urban and rural divisions were starkly contrasted in our own country on election night. While this is not a complete picture, it is essential to understanding the divide.
Inequality creates deep wounds and perpetuates conflict. Economic inequality is at the root of the war between Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, and the Colombian government. The referendum vote broke as much along class lines as urban-rural divisions. In our own country, we see the seeds of discontent that deeply rooted inequality has sown. We must reach across these divisions if we are to find a way forward.
Just like the results of the U.S. presidential election, the initial results of the referendum vote surprised the world. Colombians, including many Mennonites who have long worked for peace, are determined to take lessons learned from the unexpected outcome to support the revised accord — one that keeps victims at the center while also addressing concerns of the opposition as the country strives to mend further division.
Our country must also learn from recent days, seeking to break down the walls that divide us (Eph. 2:14).
Charissa Zehr is legislative associate for international affairs in the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.