Hostages Saved, Uribe Eyes Election

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Coy as he may be about his intentions, Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe is widely believed to want his country's constitution changed to allow him a third term in office. If so, his prospects have been boosted by the success of the audacious military rescue JULY 2 of 15 hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which dealt a devastating blow to the leftist rebels.

The raid, which freed French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. defense contractors and 11 members of Colombia's security forces, boosted Uribe's approval from an already enviable 73% to 91%. His poll numbers reflect Colombians' support for Uribe's tough security policies, that have pacified once lawless areas of the country where clashes between rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups had killed thousands of civilians. Uribe's government struck a deal that saw thousands of paramilitary fighters and their leaders demobilized — although the pact offered controversial amnesty to the masterminds behind gruesome massacres, it did dramatically reduce violence. At the same time, Uribe has overseen a military campaign against the FARC that has inflicted the most devastating blows suffered by the rebels in their 44-year history.

The hostage rescue was achieved without bloodshed, after Colombian military personnel had infiltrated the FARC and its communications to set up the transfer of the captives to helicopters the guerrillas believed were from an aid organization cooperating with the FARC, but were in fact piloted by the Colombian military. And in polls taken in the days that followed, more Colombians than ever say they want to see Uribe remain in office even after his current term ends in 2010. A full 79% of voters said they would reelect the president if given the chance.

To be reelected, however, Uribe would first need Colombia's constitution changed — and not for the first time. He previously managed that feat in order to be allowed to run in 2006 for a second consecutive term, although that change remains at the center of a corruption scandal after a former congresswoman confessed to having cast the deciding committee vote in exchange for jobs for her supporters offered by government ministers. She has been sentenced to nearly four years under house arrest. Now, however, the hostage rescue appears to have diminished the potential for that scandal to hurt Uribe's reelection chances. The most powerful endorsement for Uribe to seek a third term came from former hostage Betancourt, who had been running against him when she was kidnapped in 2002. The former hostage said that aside from the rescue operation that freed her and others, the biggest blow to the FARC had been the reelection of the hard-line Uribe in 2006.

"The FARC had gotten used to waiting for changes in government every to gain new momentum, but with the ... reelection of president Uribe, the rules changed," she said, adding that her support for allowing Uribe a third run did not mean she would vote for him.

Critics maintain that allowing Uribe a third term would place him squarely in the category of other Latin American leaders with autocratic bents, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Peru's former President Alberto Fujimori, and would weaken democratic institutions.

The center-left opposition party Polo Democratico Alternativo praised the rescue operation but warned that Uribe might use the resulting surge in support to amass too much power, and promised to continue its criticism of the government.

Even some of his own supporters are quietly urging Uribe to bow out gracefully. His security policies, after all, could be continued by others, such as Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos who has also been in the limelight because of the success of the rescue operation. And then there's Ingrid Betancourt herself, who emerged from her six and a half year captivity with a 190-point plan for government. Although she does not share Uribe's concept of security first-social justice later, Betancourt's firm anti-FARC credentials could win her significant support if she chose to run.

Still, says Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere at the Johns Hopkins University School for Strategic International Studies, although the poll numbers are sure to settle, there appears to be little to stop Uribe now. Says Roett, "If he wants a third term, he'll get a third term."