Colombia: Third Term Closer for President Alvaro Uribe
By Andres Gaudin
After nearly two years in which much of Colombia's internal politics has focused on changing the Constitution to allow President Alvaro Uribe to run for a third consecutive term, on Sept. 1, the Congress took a decisive step in support of the president's ambitions. With the approval of a law calling for a referendum on the issue, the only step remaining is for the Corte Constitucional (CC), the electoral authority, to validate the controversial law and set a date for the referendum, in which Colombians will say whether they agree to the constitutional change allowing Uribe to run again in the May 2010 elections.
The final debate took place amid renewed denunciations of corruption, the imprisonment of legislators accused of taking money from drug trafficking and paramilitary groups, and the legal investigation of party leaders--among them Tomas Uribe, son of the president, and ex-Presidents Ernesto Samper (1994-1998) and Andres Pastrana (1998-2002)--and other senators and deputies accused of selling their vote in 2006 to make up the needed majority to pass the amendment allowing Uribe's first re-election. All this amid very tense relations with neighboring countries because of the government's granting the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) use of seven air, sea, and land bases (see NotiSur, 2009-07-31).
Uribe keeps intentions under wraps
During that entire time, and until Sept. 9, when the law was signed and sent to the CC for consideration, Uribe never admitted that he was thinking about running again. The idea of another constitutional reform surfaced in late 2007--when the president had completed 18 months of his second four-year term in office--and was spearheaded by prominent leaders of the pro-government Partido de la U (named in obvious reference to Uribe). To achieve their objective, they collected signatures of citizens supporting the constitutional change (see NotiSur, 2008-06-27).
While Uribe's real ambitions were unknown and time to effect a change seemed to be running out, frustrating the hopes of the reformers, both governing-coalition parties and those of the opposition launched intensive public relations campaigns. In the Partido de la U, three hopefuls to succeed Uribe emerged, among them the powerful Juan Manuel Santos, former defense minister and Uribe's right arm, who had left the Cabinet months earlier to be able to run "if the president does not agree to run again."
Within the weak and fragmented opposition, no fewer than 10 leaders showed an interest in running for president. At that time, the political life of the country was centered in Congress, which was deciding the fate of the referendum.
"Now, everything shifted to focus on the figure of Uribe, who to some extent discouraged the political activity and opened up a period of uncertainty," wrote a columnist in the Bogota daily El Espectador.
Now that the measure has been passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president, the CC must rule on its constitutionality within 90 days, that is, by December.
If it passes CC scrutiny--the opposition has objected because, among other things, the 3 million signatures allowing congressional consideration were not verified by the competent agency--the Registraduria Nacional de Estado Civil, which is responsible for organizing and carrying out the referendum. The agency has said that it would need until March 2010, two months before the general elections, to prepare.
For now, it is not enough for Uribe to have moved the referendum process forward; he also has to convince at least 7.35 million citizens (25% of eligible voters) to turn out and half plus one of them to vote yes. Uribe has never reached those numbers in any election.
"We have to be on the alert, because it is likely that the government will grease the machinery to reach that 25% of the electorate," said Gustavo Petro, senator of the opposition Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA). …