Guzmán: The opposition will be defeated if it doesn’t unite

By Sergio Guzman March 19, 2019
Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP)
Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) Photo courtesy of Oficina de prensa JEP

Duque’s objections to the JEP presented the opposition parties with an opportunity to show Colombians that support for the implementation of the peace agreement brings the country together. A nasty Twitter fight over who should lead the opposition and should be “in the picture” made it evident that the opposition in Colombia doesn’t speak with a single voice. To be effective adversaries to the government members of the opposition must stand together. Otherwise, the government will use that lack of unity to its advantage.

President Iván Duque on 11 March made six objections to the law that governs the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a body of transitional justice framed in the peace agreement between the government and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). His objections come as no surprise, as he had previously hinted disaffection with the peace agreement signed by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos.

Members of the opposition were quick to condemn the government’s disregard for the JEP and made first-time use of the “right of reply rule” to counter Duque’s argument. Chosen to represent the members of the opposition in this unique moment was Juanita Goebertus, a Harvard educated lawyer who had previously served as lead negotiator for the transitional justice component of the peace agreement with the FARC. Goebertus’ argumentation suggested that the government was using the objections to the JEP as a political platform to advance its electoral agenda in October and that the body politic should instead be debating pressing strategic issues like poverty, education and closing the rural-urban gap.

What could have become a galvanizing moment for the opposition to demonstrate a unity of purpose became instead a messy fight over who was or was not invited to feature in the video. Gustavo Petro, Senator, and former presidential candidate complained to have been excluded from the video – which was later used by his horde of followers to demean and demerit Gobertus and her video rebuttal. Instead of self-cannibalizing, the opposition should instead focus on the matter at hand: defending the peace agreement and offer viable and constructive solutions that stand a chance of becoming law.

The opposition statute, which was approved last year, states that parties formally in opposition to the government (in this case the Green Party, the FARC, the Polo, the Decency List, Mais, and the Colombia Humana Movement) will have the right to make a reply to televised presidential address to the nation and the opposition as a whole shall be granted the same amount of time as the President to be made effective within 48 hours of the presidential address in prime time.

Under that framework, the opposition parties as a whole would have 12 minutes to rebuke the president’s objections to the JEP. If done separately the Green Party would have 5:11 to give an alternative speech to counter Duque’s arguments. Other parties would have even less camera time including FARC (2:27),  Polo (1:55), Decency List (1:05), Mais (0:49) and Colombia Humana (0:33). It would make sense, therefore, that only one spokesperson makes use of the opposition’s 12 minutes to make a compelling argument to the Colombian people.

It would also make sense that the person to make that address be the one who knew the most and could condense the legal arguments to their most basic expression; that a representative from the Green Party, the largest opposition bloc in Congress, make first use of the right of reply; and that a woman make the address, not only because of the lack of gender equality in Colombian politics but also because the date was on the heels of international women’s day. For those reasons and more, it’s fitting that Juanita Goebertus was tapped to make the address.

Goebertus, a freshman member of the lower house, who obtained more than 80k votes and was a former member of the government’s delegation in the peace negotiations, where she led the discussions on transitional justice. Her rebuttal was clever, on message, and compelling. Her core arguments were: 1) That the government’s objections are not only an affront to the peace agreement but to the constitution. 2) That the government is using the objections to advance an electoral platform when it could instead be dedicated to solving core issues such as poverty, education and solving the urban-rural divide. And 3) That for the government to take the opposition’s arguments seriously, the public had to rally in support of the peace agreement and against the government’s objections.  She then called for a rally to be held nationwide on March 18th.

Not everybody in the opposition was happy with how things panned out. It quickly became evident that senator Gustavo Petro, former presidential candidate, was not in the picture. According to early reactions from his press office, Petro was away on a family matter when the video was recorded. But then, all hell broke loose when Petro claimed that he was not informed on time that the video was taking place.

While it is true that Petro is an important voice in the opposition, he is not the only voice. Should he want to run for president in 2022, it would do him well to begin building bridges with other members of the opposition instead of obstructing emerging leaders from expressing themselves.

If the opposition wants to stand a chance of surviving in the current polarized landscape, it would do well to join forces and make a common front on issues where there is widespread agreement – the implementation of the peace agreement, the fight against economic inequality, stronger measures to counter official and private corruption. The government holds razor-thin margins in the Congress where the support of independent parties will largely determine if laws pass or not. If the opposition seeks to prevent the independents from siding with the government, it must negotiate, it must agree on concessions, and it must present a politically palatable alternative for them to do so, not the most radical version of themselves.

At a time when polarization is politically profitable in the next elections, the Colombian opposition should take a page from Benjamin Franklin: Members must indeed hang together or most assuredly will hang separately.

Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on twitter @serguzes and @ColombiaRisk

This opinion column is intended as a space to discuss some of the most pressing issues faced by Colombia and the region in these uncertain times. All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the author and do not represent the viewpoints of The Bogotá Post.