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Colombian Congress Clears a Hurdle for Uribe’s Reelection: But Will He Run?

Reading Time: 4 minutesColombian lawmakers approved a bill that paves the way for President Álvaro Uribe to seek another term, and the President has done nothing to discourage the possibility.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Earlier this week, Colombian lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a controversial referendum bill that paves the way for President Álvaro Uribe to seek a third consecutive term in office.

The referendum would ask voters to decide on a constitutional amendment to allow presidents to run for a third term. But obstacles still remain. The proposal still has to pass a special committee of lawmakers and then be ratified by the country’s constitutional court. Uribe would then need to obtain 7.2 million votes (around a quarter of the electorate) for the referendum to be approved.

While Uribe has not said whether he intends to run in the presidential elections scheduled for May 2010, he has certainly done nothing to discourage the idea. By law, Uribe has until November to declare his candidacy, and it is expected that he will keep his opponents second guessing until the last minute. 

The president is tactically refraining from declaring his decision, exposing deep divisions and a lack of leadership among opposition parties. There is no consensus among the opposition as to whether they should elect only one candidate to stand against Uribe, or if and how to select separate party presidential candidates.

This all makes it relatively easy for Uribe to win, should he decide to run for reelection. So far, every poll published shows that he would win.

Following Colombia’s last general election in 2006, much expectation was placed on the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole Party (PDA). Under the leadership of Carlos Gaviria, the party secured a record 22 percent of the vote. But since then, Gaviria and other opposition leaders have squandered opportunities to erode Uribe’s popularity, following a string of scandals that have plagued the government over the years. There is the ongoing scandal involving illegal wiretapping of opposition members allegedly carried out by the government intelligence agency, the collapse of pyramid schemes in which hundreds of thousands of Colombians lost money, and the para-politics affair where dozens of lawmakers are being investigated on charges of conspiring with illegal paramilitary groups. Worst still, the army is embroiled in a scandal where soldiers have murdered innocent civilians to inflate guerrilla body counts.

Despite all the scandals and rising unemployment (around 13 percent), there has never been a more popular leader in Colombia’s history than Uribe. After seven years in power, he still enjoys approval ratings hovering around 70 percent. So how has he done it?

Uribe has proven to be a masterful tactician and a political maverick who has an uncanny ability to read the public mood and defuse and distance himself from the barrage of scandals that have come his way.  He is as comfortable saluting his troops as he is chatting with the man in the street.

But more importantly, Uribe is seen as a savior. He is credited for reviving the fortunes of a country that many felt was at the mercy of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and on the brink of being taken over by the guerrillas. Uribe’s unapologetic hard-line stance against the FARC and his refusal to capitulate to their demands is part of his widespread appeal.

Since first coming to power in 2002, Uribe’s Democratic and Security policy has intensified a military campaign against the FARC that resulted in the group going on the defensive, along with bringing about a fall in the number of towns seized by the guerrillas and a significant decrease in crime and kidnapping rates.

The bottom line is that Uribe has made many Colombians, both rich and poor, feel safer. And it is something his supporters are not willing to give up. Many Colombians are not ready to gamble on an untested leader who they fear may give in to the FARC.

Meanwhile, new presidential hopefuls are already on the campaign trail. Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín (Colombia’s second-largest city) is the current frontrunner and had been creeping up the polls in recent weeks, with nearly 14 percent of the likely vote. Running on an independent ticket, and like Uribe, gifted with the populist touch, Fajardo has a strong track record and is credited with transforming a violent city into a model of urban renewal.

Earlier this week, Juan Manuel Santos, the defense minister, stepped down from his post. “If the president decides not to run for a new reelection, then I will be a candidate,” said Santos. Polls place him just behind Fajardo. A hardliner who oversaw a series of successful military defeats against the FARC, Santos is the natural heir to continue Uribe’s legacy. But he lacks the common touch. 

Then there is Andrés Felipe Arias, a former agriculture minister, also known as “Uribito” for his physical and ideological similarities to Uribe. Though Uribe has backed Arias as his successor, he lacks political clout and trails in the polls with around 9 percent of voter support.

In recent months, the reelection issue has dominated the political agenda and has raised controversy both in and outside of Colombia. Many opposition members are against the proposed third term, which they say would seriously undermine Colombia’s democratic systems and institutions and erode checks and balances enshrined in the constitution. “We’re not going to lend ourselves to approve a project that leaves the doors open for a dictatorship..,” declared Senator Luis Carlos Avellaneda, PDA spokesperson, moments before opposition senators staged a Senate walk-out to protest the referendum bill.

Even some of Uribe’s closest aides have joined the growing chorus of opposition against a possible third term. They include leading business leaders, the Catholic Church, Fabio Echeverri, who ran Uribe’s presidential campaigns, and Senator Marta Lucia Ramírez, ex-defense minister and now presidential hopeful. She believes another reelection would be “inconvenient” and “dangerous” for Colombia’s democracy.

For a country that prides itself on what it claims is the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin America, critics say Uribe’s possible reelection would place Colombia in the unenviable club of Andean nations, like Venezuela and Ecuador, whose leaders have used the referendum as a tool to change the constitution to remain in power. Further constitutional reform would only undermine Colombia’s credibility and international standing, critics argue.

Whether Uribe does decide to stand for an unprecedented third term is anyone’s guess. But while he waits, the political momentum on both sides builds.


Anastasia Moloney is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, a contributor to Financial Times and a contributing editor at the Washington, DC-based website World Politics Review.

Tags: Colombia, democracy, Juan Manuel Santos, Re-election, Uribe
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