In the two dozen or so countries facing violent insurgencies, such as Iraq and Pakistan, the preferred response has been military force. Yet in two countries, Colombia and Afghanistan, elections held this past weekend point to an alternative: reaching out to insurgents with a degree of empathy toward some of their ideas – if not their violent tactics.
Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, was reelected Sunday in a victory seen as a referendum on his peace negotiations with the left-wing FARC rebels. With his mandate renewed, Mr. Santos may now more easily complete the talks that began in 2012.
In Afghanistan, the results of Saturday’s presidential election are still not known, but the two candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, want reconciliation talks with moderate leaders of the Taliban to bring them into the democratic fold.
Merely by holding free and fair elections, both countries have weakened the anti-democratic appeal of each rebel group. For nearly five decades, FARC and its remaining 7,500 fighters have ruled captured territory with Marxist-Leninist authoritarianism. The Taliban, both when it was in power and in its post-9/11 insurgency, has governed with clerical tyranny. Both groups strain for legitimacy with bullets rather than ballots.
Yet a few of their demands, such as more Muslim-friendly policies for Afghans or economic justice for poor Colombians, overlap with the goals of many voters. The presidents of each country can embrace such demands while rejecting the use of violence. Negotiations might then persuade the two rebel groups to rely on politics rather than killing as the only means to their ends.
Yet making such a transition will not be easy. Many rebels are known killers and voters could insist on jail time before allowing them to become politicians. Each of these recent elections included a debate on how to balance justice with mercy for insurgents. Democracy is the best way to resolve such a conflict of competing values.
Elections are also a way for a people to sort out their identity as a country. When done enough times with transparency, elections help people rise above differences of theology, ethnicity, or ideology and embrace such civic virtues as individual liberty and equality for all. Iraq has failed in its few elections to achieve this as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has elbowed the minority Sunnis from power with his Shiite-dominated coalition. Ukraine, after achieving its second democratic revolution this year, may finally be able bridge its ethnic divide with Russian-speakers in the east.
A negotiated peace deal in Colombia or Afghanistan is still a way off. But as Santos said in his victory speech, “Colombians of very different positions, including many who didn’t sympathize with my government, mobilized today for a cause, the cause of peace.”
Troubled nations need not be paralyzed by armed rebellion if they can practice both democracy and the job of listening for common concerns between political opponents.