Colombia's Uribe eyes one more run

Posted in Latin America | 02-Oct-08 | Author: John Otis| Source: The Miami Herold

Colombia President Alvaro Uribe speaks at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, September 19, 2008.

Will he or won't he?

Halfway through his second term, Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's wildly popular president, remains coy about whether he will seek a third four-year term in 2010.

Earlier this month, he strongly hinted he would sit out the next election and perhaps attempt a comeback in 2014. Days later, Uribe said he might run in 2010 if his political allies failed to unite behind a single candidate who would continue his hard-line security policies.

Uribe has done nothing to stop a citizen-based drive to change the Colombian Constitution to allow him to run again. For the moment, the charter prohibits presidents from serving more than two terms.

But this month, the Colombian Congress received a petition with more than five million signatures obliging lawmakers to consider a referendum on eliminating the ban on third terms.

'People say that he's doing good work and, if that's the case, he should continue in the job,' said Carlos Alberto Jaramillo, one of the organizers of the petition drive.

RIDING HIGH

Many analysts believe Uribe would win if allowed to run.

Thanks to a string of military victories against the country's Marxist guerillas, Uribe is riding high in the polls. A Gallup survey puts his job-approval rating at 78 percent.

But critics warn that Uribe could damage his reputation and Colombia's close relations with the United States by seeking three consecutive terms.

Latin America has a history of military dictators. Thus, when democracy spread across the region in the late 1980s and early '90s, the constitutions of many of these nations were rewritten to prohibit presidential re-election.

Uribe engineered one constitutional change that allowed him to run for a second term in 2006. That effort led to allegations that members of his Cabinet had secured congressional support by promising jobs and other favors to legislators.

Going for a third term in 2010 'would display an authoritarian tendency,' said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. ``It would also hurt his legacy which, on balance, has been very positive.'

Uribe has been vague, keeping all of his options on the table and thus avoiding the handicap of becoming a lame-duck leader.

Speaking before a university audience, he said he preferred to promote new leaders and to improve national security during his remaining two years in office and that the reelection issue would be a distraction.

'I think it's much better that Colombians consolidate the policies of democratic security, investor confidence and social cohesion rather than worry about the president remaining in power,' he said.

Shortly afterward, however, he indicated he would run should the campaign of the would-be successor from his political coalition falter.

But Uribe's maneuvering has prevented Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and other pro-government candidates from launching their own campaigns, which could provide an opening for the opposition.

First sworn in in 2002, then reelected in 2006 by a landslide, Uribe made his mark by improving security in a nation plagued by kidnappings and where left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries held control of huge swaths of the countryside.

ENLARGED ARMY

Uribe added more than 100,000 troops to the armed forces. They have captured or killed key guerrilla leaders while thousands of paramilitaries have disarmed.

The military's most spectacular feat was a July 2 operation that rescued 15 high-profile hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors.

ECONOMY IMPROVED

Although the illegal drug trade remains robust, improved security has brought more tourism and foreign investment to Colombia and sparked six years of economic growth.

Still, everyone from Uribe's advisers to leading businessmen and his wife reportedly have urged him to step down in 2010.

'We shouldn't confuse the admiration that the business community has for Uribe with the danger of extending his rule longer than is advisable,' said Luis Carlos Villegas, president of ANDI, an influential business association.

CLOUDS LINGER

Uribe has been weakened by a long-running investigation into ties between paramilitaries and his political allies in the Congress. Nearly 70 legislators, almost all of them pro-Uribe, are either in prison or under investigation, a scandal that has led to calls for the election of a new Congress.

In addition, Uribe has feuded with Supreme Court justices investigating the paramilitary scandal, has traded insults with former Colombian presidents and accused human rights organizations of working with the guerrillas.

'The president should consider taking a break to re-charge his batteries,' declared a recent editorial in the

Bogotá newspaper El

Tiempo.

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