Updated 4 months ago

If at first you don’t succeed...

WHEN on October 2nd a narrow majority of Colombian voters rejected a peace agreement under which the FARC guerrillas were to disarm, it was not just a pollster-confounding shock. It was also a rebuke to the government of Juan Manuel Santos, to negotiators who spent four tough years working on the accord and to the international establishment, which had praised the accord. Thus stung, Mr Santos’s people and the FARC’s leaders went back to the table. On November 12th they came up with a revised agreement. Will it command wider public support?

According to Mr Santos, the result is a “renovated, adjusted, more precise and clarified” accord that takes account of many of the objections of the critics, led by Álvaro Uribe, his predecessor and now his chief foe. It is even longer—310 pages instead of 297—but its essence remains the same. The FARC will disarm and become a civilian political party. FARC leaders found guilty of war crimes will not be sent to jail; instead, they will face alternative penalties involving “effective restrictions of liberty”, provided they confess their deeds before a special tribunal.

The new agreement tidies up loose ends, and involves a few significant concessions from the FARC. Their new political party will get less public money. The tribunal will now be composed only of Colombian judges, with foreign magistrates reduced to the status of observers. The time limit for implementing the agreement has been extended from ten to 15 years, to lessen the fiscal strain caused by spending billions of dollars on rural development. Importantly, only the provisions regarding international humanitarian law, and not the whole agreement, will be written into Colombia’s constitution. That would have made the constitution unwieldy, and risked making policy choices, such as land reform, irrevocable.

Many of the other changes spell out matters implied in the original accord. For example, the tribunal will define the place to which convicted FARC leaders will be confined, and this will be not much bigger than a village. The tribunal’s decisions will be subject to review by Colombia’s constitutional court. The FARC must declare their assets, and the details of their involvement in drug-trafficking—something prosecutors were likely to winkle out of them anyway. Land reform will not affect the right to private property. The government can use aerial spraying of coca crops if manual eradication fails. Another raft of changes, aimed at mollifying the churches, removes much of the original politically correct language concerning “gender equity” and the rights of gays and transsexuals.

The FARC may have accepted such changes because they have at last understood that most Colombians abhor them and that political support for peace matters more than legal guarantees. They may fear that Donald Trump will look less kindly on the peace process than Barack Obama has.

But the FARC have insisted that leaders guilty of war crimes be eligible for election to congress and as mayors. On that there is an unbridgeable divide. Mr Uribe sees the FARC as “narcoterrorists” deserving of jail. Many Colombians, who recall the FARC’s kidnappings and bombings, agree. For Mr Santos, the guerrillas have “a political origin” and the raison d’être of all peace processes is to facilitate a transition from armed rebellion to peaceful democratic politics.

The president, rightly, insisted on a speedy renegotiation because the ceasefire between the FARC and the army is “fragile”. (The army killed two guerrillas this week, it said accidentally.) Even so, it was hard to see why Mr Santos rushed to announce the new accord on a Saturday night in the middle of a long holiday weekend. Perhaps the reason was that, as it now transpires, this week he faces tests to see whether the prostate cancer he suffered in 2012 has returned.

Mr Santos has called the bluff of the No campaigners in the plebiscite who claimed they wanted peace, but not on the previous terms. He insists this is the last word. Mr Uribe, who wants further consultation, is taking his time before pronouncing on the new agreement. He must judge whether it is so unacceptable as to merit blocking peace altogether.

Many outsiders will expect Mr Santos to call a fresh plebiscite. But he is unlikely to do so. A second loss would be definitive. Instead, he will seek approval in congress, where he has a solid majority. But that route may mean forgoing consensus and a fast track for legislative approval of the constitutional changes that the agreement requires. With a presidential election due in 2018 the risk is that peace will be subject to political trench warfare. That, Mr Santos has decided, will be better than the military kind.