Uribe re-election closer but tough road ahead

BOGOTA, (Reuters) – Colombian President Alvaro Uribe  is edging closer to a shot at a third term next year, but any  bid must still clear many obstacles, including the question  whether he even wants to run for re-election.
Senators on Tuesday approved a referendum on whether the  popular conservative can run by changing the constitution. But  the proposal must still pass through a special commission of  lawmakers and get constitutional court approval.

Time is tight because the election is due in May 2010, and  Uribe’s opponents see the plan as a threat to Colombia’s  democracy.

Washington has not stated a position on a third term by its  key South American ally. But an Uribe re-election has already  drawn comparisons to anti-U.S. leader Venezuelan President Hugo  Chavez, who won a referendum allowing him to stay in power as  long as he beats rivals in elections.
“The government has shown enough clout and firepower to  push the project through, but will face a tough road that will  stretch time limits,” said Patrick Esteruelas at Eurasia Group  consultancy. “The longer and more uncertain the process  becomes, the greater the pressure for Uribe to step aside.”

Hugely popular for his U.S.-backed war on leftist  guerrillas, Uribe has made Colombian security the backbone of  his first two terms in office. Many Colombians still thank him  for making the country safer after years of conflict.
Uribe has been evasive on whether he wants another term. He  already had one constitutional reform allowing his 2006  re-election, and his opponents say another change to the  constitution to allow him to run again would put Colombia on  the path to authoritarian rule.

Securing the referendum will not be easy. A commission from  the lower house and the senate must agree on whether the bill’s  vague wording refers to immediate re-election or re-election in  2014, which would discount Uribe.

Already the process is caught in party infighting. Uribe’s  allies are seeking to block lower house president, German  Varon, from selecting commission members because he openly  opposes immediate re-election.

“A country cannot be subject to only one person,” Varon  told local radio. “It is an excessive for one person can keep a  country in the ambiguity that we are in now.”

After the commission, the constitutional court could take  at least two months to rule on the referendum’s legality. The  electoral office chief still believes a vote could be held  within six months if there are no legal complications.
Uribe said in the past he does not believe a president  should try to stay in power and has signaled support for  several alternative candidates who would guarantee the  continuity of his popular security and investment policies.

But he has refused to rule out another term, and all signs  point to Uribe setting the stage for a possible run. His  justice minister and some of his top allies have lobbied hard  for the referendum to go ahead this year.

Some observers believe the president is using the  referendum and his silence as a way to keep his opponents off  guard and his own alliance under control as parties jostle to  prepare their individual candidates should he move aside.
If the referendum is approved, at least 25 percent of the  electorate must vote — around 7.2 million voters — for the  ballot to be valid.

A recent poll showed around 80 percent of Colombians who  said they would participate in the referendum would support  Uribe’s re-election. But his popularity could sag this year due  to the global financial slowdown.
And scandals over state security agents’ illegal  wiretapping of journalists and judges and a probe into murders  of civilians by soldiers may erode his approval ratings if they  drag on.

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