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Colombian voters narrowly rejected a peace deal with Marxist guerrillas on Sunday that aimed to end the western hemisphere’s oldest conflict, plunging the country into uncertainty.
All polls leading up to the referendum had suggested the Yes vote would win. But in a shock to pollsters, the No side received 50.2 per cent of the vote, and the Yes side 49.8 per cent.
The vote was to ratify a peace accord signed last Monday between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), which has enjoyed widespread international support, from Pope Francis to US President Barack Obama.
Recalling the uncertainty that followed the UK’s surprise Brexit vote to leave the EU, the result leaves both No and Yes camps with no clear plan as to what happens next.
In a televised message to the nation, Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, said: “I am the first person to recognise the result…But I will not give up, I will keep searching for peace until the last minute of my mandate.” Mr Santos, who has staked his political career on the peace talks, has two years left in his term.
The accord, which followed four years of negotiations in Havana, aimed to end a 52-year conflict that has left more than 250,000 people dead and displaced 7m; it also promised to draw a curtain on guerrilla-inspired revolutionary movements in Latin America.
Flanked by grim-looking members of his peace negotiating team, Mr Santos told the nation that his first responsibility was to maintain stability and security in the country. He added that a ceasefire agreed in June with the Farc was still in place, and that he would convoke a meeting of all the country’s political forces — particularly the opposition — to discuss what to do next.
Colombia rejects Farc peace deal
In the streets of Bogotá, the capital, supporters of the Yes campaign shed tears while No voters chanted “Viva Colombia”, in scenes reminiscent of the popular division in the UK that followed the Brexit vote.
Rodrigo Londoño, the Farc leader known as Timochenko, said from Havana: “We profoundly lament that those who sow discord influenced the Colombian people…But our resolve to work for peace is stronger than ever. Peace will triumph.”
Despite the prospect of peace, most Colombians remained ambivalent about striking a deal with Farc, which they view with distrust after decades of kidnapping, extortion, and massacres. “We underestimated the hatred towards the Farc, that is what won,” said Jorge Restrepo, who heads the Bogotá-based security think-tank CERAC.
The No campaign was led by Álvaro Uribe, the former president, who opposed the peace pact, saying it was too soft on Farc rebels by allowing them to re-enter society, form a political party and escape traditional jail sentences. Mr Uribe sought a renegotiation of the deal, which the government had denied was possible.
Mr Santos said his team of peace negotiators would leave for Havana to hold discussions with the Farc.
Under the accord, the Farc, which began as a peasant revolt in 1964, would have given up its arms in return for being able to compete in the 2018 presidential and legislative elections. It would also have given up its role in the lucrative illegal drugs trade.
“The international community will be totally perplexed by this result,” said Fernando Cepeda, a political analyst and former diplomat.
Turnout on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, a bulwark of Yes votes, was affected by Hurricane Matthew, which drenched the region with heavy rain. More than 13m Colombians voted, out of a registered electorate of 35m — a higher turnout than was widely expected. The No vote won by 57,000 votes.