It took some arm-twisting. One Colombian legislator traveling in Taiwan was ordered aboard a flight back to Bogotá so he could cast his vote. Up until the last minute, government envoys prowled the aisles and cajoled lawmakers on the floor of the Colombian Senate. But in the end, they delivered for President Alvaro Uribe. By a lopsided 62-to-5 vote with the opposition walking out in protest senators on Tuesday approved a bill paving the way for a referendum to amend the constitution and allow Uribe to run for an unprecedented third term.
On the surface, another four years for Uribe, who was first elected in 2002 and then won a second term in 2006, might seem like a no-brainer for both Colombians and the U.S. government, which has underwritten his administration with more than $5 billion in mostly military aid. The assistance has helped the Colombian police and army troops to drive back guerrilla groups, arrest drug traffickers and reduce kidnappings. Until the global recession took hold, the improved security had helped to attract billions in new foreign investment, which sparked an economic boom. After seven years in office, Uribe's approval rating stands at 68%, according to a recent Gallup poll. And if he's given the chance to run in the May 2010 election, several opinion surveys show Uribe mopping up. (See pictures from Colombia's narco underworld.)
Like many South American nations with painful histories of abusive autocrats and military dictators, Colombia had long tried to limit presidential power. The 1991 constitution banned re-election. Uribe was allowed to run in 2006 only after lawmakers amended the constitution in a controversial move that led to accusations of vote-buying. Now, with Uribe's blessing, pro-government legislators are trying to change the rules yet again. (See pictures of guerrillas battling Uribe's government.)
But if the effort succeeds, it could seriously damage Uribe's impressive legacy. Critics are already painting him as a conservative counterpart to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's left-wing President who was first elected 11 years ago and has vowed to rule until 2021. Others see parallels with Alberto Fujimori, who took on his country's guerrilla groups and used his popularity to gain a third presidential term in 2000. But Fujimori quickly fell from grace and was forced to resign. Last month, a Peruvian court convicted him of mass murder and kidnapping and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.
The Uribe administration is already showing troubling signs of decay and paranoia. His intelligence agency stands accused of spying on political opponents. Dozens of pro-Uribe lawmakers have been jailed for collaborating with right-wing death squads. As a result, nearly one-third of the senators voting in favor of the referendum on Tuesday were unelected alternates standing in for their disgraced colleagues.
The President's two sons, in turn, have come under fire for allegedly using their famous family name to close a lucrative land deal. Even the army has been shaken by accusations that soldiers killed as many as 1,600 civilians and dressed them up as guerrillas to run up the body count and earn cash bonuses. "Uribe already has too much power. He controls the legislature. He has growing influence on the judiciary," says Daniel Coronell, a columnist and TV journalist. "A third term for Uribe would be dangerous for Colombian democracy."
Several speed bumps lie on Uribe's road to re-election. Colombia's House and Senate must reconcile different versions of the re-election bill, which then must pass muster by the Constitutional Court. The issue would then be put before voters near the end of the year. At least one quarter of the electorate about 7 million people has to turn out to vote for the result to be deemed valid. If the "yes" votes outnumber the "no" votes by any margin even just one vote the referendum is passed.
Former President Cesar Gaviria calls the effort "inappropriate, unconstitutional and illegal" and claims that by focusing on re-election, the Uribe government has been sidetracked from more pressing issues like the recent slowdown of Colombia's economy. But Gaviria and other naysayers are badly outnumbered by average people who view Uribe as one of the greatest leaders in Colombia's recent history.
The President has cultivated this grass-roots support through a series of televised town-hall meetings. On Saturday, he took his road show to a high school gymnasium in Pereira, a city in the heart of Colombia's coffee belt. Rolling up his sleeves and reveling in the minutiae of crop prices and road-paving projects, Uribe seemed more like an alderman. He cracked jokes, fielded requests for new ambulances and even got into a debate over the best spot to build a small sugar mill.
During a break in the meeting, retired doctor Fernando Castro said he feared that without Uribe, the guerrillas would return to terrorize the countryside. Eighteen years ago, Castro was injured when rebels tried to kidnap him at his farm near Pereira. The attack left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair. "What happened to me happened to many Colombians," Castro said. "But Uribe has taken on the narcos and the bandits, and we've been able to return to our land. If you ask me who I'm voting for, I will tell you: Uribe, of course!"
Yet Colombia does not lack for presidential timber, and most candidates pledge to continue Uribe's national-security policies. Chief among them is Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who oversaw a series of battlefield triumphs including last year's commando raid that rescued 15 guerilla-held hostages. Santos will step down at the end of the month to launch his own presidential bid but said he would pull out if Uribe is allowed to run. The reason? Opinion polls show that in a head-to-head contest, Santos would be trounced by his former boss.