Colombia’s Uribe blocked from re-election

Juan Manuel Santos leads in opinion polls, but the ruling  marks the start of a tough campaign to replace Uribe, who  during his eight years in power became the country’s most  popular president for his U.S.-backed war on leftist rebels.

The court voted 7-2 to reject a referendum on Uribe’s  re-election bid, citing irregularities ranging from the  referendum’s financing to its rocky passage through Congress.

Uribe told reporters after the ruling, “I accept and I  respect the decision of the constitutional court.”

Under Uribe, Latin America’s oldest insurgency has ebbed  and foreign investment has flowed steadily into Colombia, a  country once considered a byword for a failed state.

Many Colombians praised Uribe as the man who managed to  steer the country onto the right track.

Any candidate to succeed Uribe will likely not shift too  far from his security policies, although most say they will  seek to focus more on social development in the top coffee  exporter and Latin America’s No. 4 oil producer.

“Uribe’s sidelining from the presidential race is  unequivocally positive in our view, opening the door to a deep  bench of candidates who are broadly in favor of policy  continuity,” said analyst Patrick Esteruelas at Eurasia Group.

Santos, a former defence minister closely associated with  Uribe’s security successes against FARC leftist guerrillas, has  been ahead in most polls, if Uribe is discounted.

But Sergio Fajardo, an independent praised for his  performance as Medellin major, is making ground, and another  former defence minister and three-time candidate, Noemi Sanin,  has gained recently in the polls.

The political transition could unnerve the local peso  currency and benchmark TES debt markets in the short term as  investors absorb the change in command, but most analysts see  long-term continuity in Colombian policy.

“While a constitutional court rejection may trigger a  knee-jerk negative (peso) reaction, this is likely to be  transitory as no major shift in economic, regulatory or  security policy is expected,” RBC Capital Markets said.

Uribe was re-elected once before in 2006 after his  supporters pushed through a constitutional amendment to lift  restrictions on incumbent presidents running for a second  term.

But the move to change the law again for Uribe fueled  worries over the threat to Colombia’s democracy. His second  term was marred by scandals over rights abuses by troops and  illegal wiretapping on his opponents by the state spy agency.

His popularity has hovered above 60 percent during his  nearly eight years in office. But the government’s handling of  an overhaul of the health service this month appeared to cost  him politically after the measures triggered protests.

Colombians will vote next month in legislative elections  likely to be a benchmark of Uribe’s approval as his political  coalition seeks to shore up majorities. But the elections could  risk splintering the Uribe alliance.

Already Uribe’s U Party and the Conservative Party — two  heavyweights in the president’s coalition — have clashed over  whether they should present a unified candidate.

Violence and kidnappings from the country’s four-decade-old  war have eased, bringing a flow of investment especially in oil  and mining. The next president must tackle high unemployment, a  lack of state presence in rural areas and consolidate security  gains outside major cities.

FARC rebels are still fighting in remote areas, ambushing  troops and laying improvised land mines, new militia gangs  engaged in drug smuggling are an increasing worry and the  country remains the world’s No. 1 exporter of cocaine.

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