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.”
URIBE NOT RULING OUT ANOTHER TERM
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.