Colombia's worst nightmare is a Brexit-like defeat in peace deal referendum

It's been heralded as a historic peace deal to end Latin America's longest-running conflict. But there is a major hurdle the deal still needs to clear: a national referendum on Oct. 2 in which Colombians will get the chance to make their voices heard.

It's bound to be a bitter fight.

Supporters and opponents of the peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are even haggling over what is on the ballot. Opponents say the question being posed to Colombians is purposefully misleading since it doesn't even mention the FARC and asks voters whether they support a "lasting and stable peace." They've appealed to the constitutional court to block the vote.

Polls taken before the accord was reached last month in Cuba showed anywhere between an 11- and 35-point advantage in support of the agreement. But the government isn't taking victory for granted. In an unusual move criticized as unfair and undemocratic by the opposition, President Juan Manuel Santos has asked his entire Cabinet to fan out across the country to carry out what he calls a "pedagogy for peace," explaining the 297-page accord to Colombians.

It's a tough sell. Most Colombians loathe the FARC and have deep reservations about the accord. Particularly irksome are a provision sparing rebel leaders accused of major human rights abuses jail time and one guaranteeing them 10 seats in congress.

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"There's not going to be true peace," said Marlon Perez, a 22-year-old studying in Bogota to be a sommelier. Like many Colombian youth, he is ambivalent about the deal with the FARC and is unsure how he'll vote. But he is leaning toward casting a "yes" ballot.

"It's better to have an incomplete peace than to be killing each other every day," Perez said.

Santos says concessions were necessary to persuade the guerrillas to turn over their weapons after 52 years of combat. He calls the deal the best his government could strike with a recalcitrant rebel movement that is impossible to defeat militarily and whose 7,000 fighters wield enough firepower to cause damage and take lives across large swaths of the country.

But the opposition, led by ex-President Alvaro Uribe, argues that the government is appeasing the FARC and setting a bad example that powerful criminal gangs will seize on. Under the banner of "civil resistance," Uribe, a former mentor to Santos turned archrival, has led a campaign that has collected over 1 million signatures opposing the accord. This week, a giant bus painted with phrases like "No to the FARC in power" and "No to impunity for the terrorists" began making its way around the country in an Urbe-led caravan.

"It's not about signing for the sake of signing," said Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who narrowly lost the presidency to Santos and is coordinating the "no" campaign.

Further enraging opponents was a vote Wednesday by the Council of the State, the top administrative court, nullifying the 2013 re-election of the semi-autonomous Inspector General Alejandro Ordonez, one of the fiercest critics of the accord.

"They've just fulfilled the first pact of Havana: the departure of the Inspector General," a defiant Ordonez said upon learning of his removal. "The legitimacy of the referendum doesn't depend solely on winning a majority but also on respecting the rules and controls."

The outcome of the referendum will be binding for Santos. He was not required to call for a vote to ratify the accord. But he promised to do so, against the wishes of the FARC and even many allies, when the peace process kicked off in 2012. At the time, he told Colombians that negotiations would last months and support for his effort was running high.

Four years later, Colombians' patience with the guerrillas has worn thin and many question whether Santos' political capital would have been better spent buffering a wobbly economy from the collapse in commodity prices. Some opponents are trying to frame the vote as a referendum on Santos, whose approval rating in a May poll by Gallup plummeted to 21 percent, the lowest since he took office in 2010. In July, it rebounded slightly.

Slackening enthusiasm could dampen turnout. That is important because for the results to be valid it must be endorsed by at least 13 percent of all registered voters, or about 4.5 million votes. Turnout in Colombian elections is even lower than it is in the U.S. and a 2003 referendum on political reforms promoted by Uribe, then near the apex of his popularity, failed to cross the threshold then in place.

The government's worst nightmare is a Brexit-like defeat. An intense media blitz and almost daily events by famous actors and artists expressing support for the accord seeks to prevent such a scenario.

"The consequences of a loss would be catastrophic," Humberto De la Calle, the government's chief negotiator, said in announcing the deal.

But just winning might not be enough for Santos given the rough road ahead fulfilling the accord's ambitious agenda of agrarian reform and development in areas long neglected by the state. One reason why the government was rushing to conclude talks was an approaching deadline for the government to pass legislation raising taxes next year to pay for peace.

"If the vote is tight, Uribe can claim victory," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "If the plebiscite reveals a very sharply polarized society after a bitter campaign it will make it harder to implement the accord."

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