On questioning the state of democracy in U.S., Colombia

Democracy is hitting roadblocks and experiencing internal conflict in nations around the world. The struggle to maintain balances of power and political representation of citizens in a democracy is clearly demonstrated by current situations in the United States and Colombia. The U.S. electoral college system’s power over the popular vote and the Colombian government’s recent dismissal of a referendum vote exemplify ways in which democracy can be flawed and exploited, even in well-intentioned governments. Colombia’s situation—not unlike the electoral college’s election of President-elect Donald Trump despite former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win—begs the question of how democracy can be upheld and respected when a country is so drastically divided over an issue. Additionally, it raises the issue of how democracy is actively being redefined.

The Colombian government has been at war with the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia for over 50 years. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño publicly shook hands and signed a peace agreement on Sept. 26 to finally end the groups’ decades-long conflict. To implement and ratify the peace agreement, however, Colombian citizens needed to approve it under a referendum vote.

The referendum was expected by Santos and most major polls to be approved by a landslide vote. Colombians, however, shockingly vetoed the referendum, with a slim margin of 50.2 percent disapproval to 49.8 percent approval. Colombian citizens are greatly divided over the peace agreement; supporters want to finally establish peace between the groups, while those who oppose want the Colombian government to give FARC leaders harsher punishments for their alleged war crimes.

It was expected that the Colombian government would revise the peace agreement to appease the opposition—by disallowing FARC leaders to hold political office, for example—and host another referendum vote to update public opinion. The government, however, decided to implement the agreement—despite the public’s direct disapproval of it—without hosting a second referendum vote. Santos ignored the majority of Colombia’s population when installing policies that may have mixed effects on political, economic, social and governmental sectors of the country.

The U.S. supported the peace agreement and pledged to boost U.S. aid to Colombia by nearly 50 percent if it was approved by Colombian citizens, according to The Washington Post. It is interesting that the U.S.—historically involved in many failed or complicated attempts to install democratic governments in Latin America—is financially involved in the Colombian-FARC agreement while experiencing its own conflict of democracy.

These recent conflicts of democratic interest show that the Colombian president—and, similarly, the electoral college in the U.S.—can overrule public opinion on important issues and elections. Additionally, promised financial gain from the U.S. for the approved peace agreement adds suspicion to Colombia’s decision to violate the referendum results.

If presidential powers or a legislative system can change or delegitimize a democratically elected decision, how can a society define itself as democratic? With the infiltration of political elites in the U.S. legislative and political system—and financial incentives for Colombia to disregard a democratic vote—it seems that not even well intentioned government is free from political corruption.

Political systems are not easy to reform or fix. If growing disillusionment with the current status of democracy is used to fuel social movement—such as through recent petitions calling for a recount of the U.S. presidential election—then the power of a population can resist an increasing disregard of basic democratic principles.