The Political Strategy for Peace

By Diana Isabel Güiza Gómez*


Recently, much has been said about the constitutional protection (blindaje jurídico) of the Colombian peace agreements, which the Colombian government and the FARC-EP will sign in the upcoming days. In fact, on May 12, the parties communicated that the peace agreements would have various domestic and international commitments. These formulas seek to ensure that the agreements are fulfilled, because they are not merely political declarations, but rather because they create duties that must be fulfilled. With this hope in the durability of the law, we believe that we can create a stable and lasting peace.

At the same time, several of those opposed to the peace agreement have raised their voices to reject the advances of the Negotiating Table in La Habana, and some have called for a “civil resistance.” In such a panorama, are these legal tools enough to ensure that the agreements are brought to life in such a polarized society? Of course not. The success of peace requires not only the legal security of the agreements, but also, importantly, a grassroots political process, which includes popular support. Peace is possible, to a large extent, if citizens believe in it and defend the specific form of ending the conflict determined in the agreements. This political process requires, among other things, setting the scene for peace and permeating every day life with its discourse, which is possible with political and social policies to build support. However, in Colombia the government and guerrillas have done little in this respect. But how can they do so? Although obtaining widespread support in such a polarized society is not easy, it is useful to consider some pedagogical and media strategies to adopt a discourse of peace. Some good examples of such strategies come from South Africa, Chile, and North Ireland.

Publicizing the end of apartheid in South Africa

When the De Klerk administration and the African National Congress (ANC) met to negotiate, the political environment was not entirely favorable, and society was polarized. From the announcement of the beginning of negotiations, political support for the National Party (NP), which supported the transition, weakened, and the Conservative Party (CP) gained ground. As a response, on February 21, 1992, De Klerk announced that only the white population would be consulted, through a referendum, if they supported negotiations with the ANC. The effects of the referendum were serious, and, to a certain extent, risky: if the yes vote one, the peace process would be strengthened by pacifying political tensions, and this political environment would favor ending apartheid. But if the no vote one, the consequences would be serious, as De Klerk had announced that he would resign as president, which would shut, at least in the mid term, the door to peace.

In spite of these serious risks, South Africa chose peace with popular backing, which included the opposition: white South Africans. This is why the consultation process with white people included a broad campaign that began earlier rather than later. The “vote yes” campaign launched several strategies to win votes, as did the “no” campaign.

The “yes” campaign was led by different actors and included all kinds of messages. For example, Mandela assured the white population that an ANC-led government would not reduce white public officials, and that those who were let go would obtain certain benefits. Additionally, large South African companies showed that the negotiations were creating economic opportunities that could not be wasted by voting no. (Sunday Times, March 8, 1992) There were also advertisements that showed the benefits of peace with phrases like “the future is in your hands” or “you can stop this man” (followed by the image of a man wearing a ski mask and carrying a gun).

South Africa vote "no"

South Africa vote "no"

South-Africa vote "yes". View full size images at  African Media Online .

South-Africa vote "yes". View full size images at African Media Online.

The “no” campaign, by contrast, argued that allowing the government to negotiate with the ANC would lead to a majority black communist leadership that would ignore the rights of the white population. 

In this way, the political atmosphere for peace was created in South Africa. The referendum resulted in a majority yes vote, with 68.7% of white voters supporting the negotiations. With this support, the peace process continued on its path until 1994, when Mandela was elected as president, and 1996, when the new Constitution was passed.

This experience leaves us with two lessons: the campaign for peace should not only be led by the government and political parties, but also by other actors, including social leaders and business people. And the message should be addressed to all of society, including those opposed to the peace process. 

Propaganda of the end of the Chilean dictatorship  

In Chile, the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship also had popular support. Although the Chilean context was different than Colombia’s, as Chile faced a dictator and Colombia an armed conflict, the Chilean political strategy is relevant and gives us some good lessons.

The 1980 Chilean Constitution set a transition period, from March 11, 1981 (when it entered into force), until the end of Pinochet’s term on March 11, 1989. To decide if Pinochet would continue in power, there would be a plebiscite that asked citizens if they thought the current president should continue governing. If the “yes” won, Pinochet would continue in power, and if the “no” won, the dictatorship would begin to be dismantled. The effects of the plebiscite were important, but there were also risks. As Eugenio Tironi, director of content for the No campaign, the main adversary “wasn’t Pinochet; it was fear. The fear of going out, voting, and showing their choice.”

In the campaign, both the “yes” and “no” campaigns had 15 minutes of daily television coverage, with which to win voters to support or reject the possibility of having Pinochet in power until 1997.

The “yes” campaign’s propaganda sent the message that, if the military government fell, the country would fall into chaos, economic growth would decline, and the feared Marxists would return. It’s central message was “Yes, you decide, We keep moving ahead, or we return to the Unidad Popular”

The “no” campaign’s propaganda, portrayed in a well-known movie, appealed to the feeling of hope with phrases like “Without hatred. Without violence. Without fear. No more. Vote No.” This propaganda included scenes that Chilean society would remember, such as the story of an elderly woman’s torture, who was the mother of the former soccer player Carlos Caszely.

In the plebiscite, the “no” vote won by 55.99% to the 44.01% that the “yes” vote had obtained. The de facto Pinochet government was thus toppled by a democratic route, and the transition period was supported by the political pact of Chileans, as expressed by the plebiscite.

The main lesson from this experience is the role of creativity. Innovative messages can help us more easily see peace as a possibility.

The propaganda for the approval of the Good Friday Agreement in North Ireland

 In April 1998, the main parties of North Ireland signed the Belfast Agreement, or the Good Friday Agreement. This Agreement sought to put an end to an armed conflict between two profoundly divided communities: the republicans (catholics) who wanted to joining Ireland, and the unionists (protestants) who wanted to keep ties with the United Kingdom. In this context the peace agreement confronted opposition from the more radical sectors of both unionism and republicanism. This is why the agreement was submitted to a referendum in the Republic of Ireland and North Ireland on May 22, 1998.

Various campaigns that were began focused on creating support or repudiation for the peace process in general, as well as for the specific content of the agreement. On the latter, publicity emphasized the content of the peace agreement as reasons to vote for or against it.

“It’s a right to say no” was the slogan of the opposition’s campaign. This sector sought allies to reject the peace agreement because, in general, it believed that there were better routes to consolidate democracy in North Ireland.

 The yes campaign used different strategies to encourage a consensus for peace, spreading knowledge about the content of the agreements and include allies in the referendum. These measures included, for example, sending each citizen a copy of the peace agreement and a VHS tape with arguments in favor of the agreement. Music icons also participated, such as U2, as well as labor and women’s coalitions.

In the end, the peace agreement received overwhelming popular support: 71% in North Ireland and 95% in the Republic of Ireland. This majority vote in favor of the peace and the Good Friday Agreement contributed to the implementation and fulfillment of the agreement.

This experience leaves us with three lessons. First, propaganda for peace must be concrete, rather than abstract. There are better reasons to convince citizens if they are aware of specific benefits of voting for peace than continuing in war. Second, the message should be oriented to audiences according to their particular conditions, and focus on different sectors. Third, we must be creative.

And propaganda for the end of the Colombian conflict?

Although we are close (or we hope we are), to signing one of the most important political pacts in our recent history, we have not managed to set the political or social stage for peace. The levels of citizen knowledge about the agreements are low, polarization continues to grow, and political strategies to encourage support are non-existent. In the political arena, the supporters of peace are losing ground simply due to inaction. But how do we get into action?

We can identify some good practices from the aforementioned experiences. For now, I will venture to give a few ideas. Our pedagogical and political strategy for peace should be based on moving from abstract to concrete and understand our target audience. The peace discourse should permeate our social life, and, to do so, it is useful to show what opportunities the post agreement phase will bring. And this message is more potent if we understand the target audience. A good idea is to adjust the message according to whether the audience is rural or urban, the social sector, and whether the audience is in favor, indifferent, or opposed to the peace process. Thus, the strategy in an urban area could use television or the Internet, but in the rural sector is would be more useful to make use of community radio or printed news.

It is time for all of us, not just the parties at the table, to sign up for peace. And it is getting late to “wear the colors” of peace.


* Diana Isabel Güiza Gómez is a researcher in the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).

Photo source: Revista El Tranvía