Colombia: A Snag in Uribe's Re-Election Steamroller

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MAURICIO DUENAS / epa / Corbis

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez attends a military promotion ceremony at Jose Maria Cordova Military School in Bogota.

President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia is a phantom candidate with a long shadow. Prohibited by his country's constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, Uribe, who has already won the presidency twice by landslide, is nevertheless the solid frontrunner in next year's race. And so, as he maneuvers for the legal right to run again, several rival candidates have put their campaigns on ice.

The electoral scenario became even muddier just before midnight Tuesday. On the face of it, the decision by Colombia's lower house should be a clear victory for the popular president. It approved by a bill to hold a nationwide referendum on the president's right to a third term. Had lawmakers rejected the measure, Uribe's hopes would have died. Instead, "the Colombian Congress has responded to the popular will of the people," said Interior Minister Fabio Valencia Cossio, who shepherded the bill through the Congress. "It was an act of grandeur."

But rather than steamrolling to a third term, the clock may now be running out on Colombia's president. Uribe must register as a candidate by March 13, 2010. But there are several steps to go through before then. After Uribe signs the referendum bill, the new law must be sanctioned by the Constitutional Court, which, though dominated by pro-Uribe magistrates, could take up to five months to get through numerous legal challenges, according to Rafael Pardo, a presidential candidate for the opposition Liberal Party. Valencia Cassio, the interior minister, predicts a decision by December. But even if the court gives its seal of approval, the National Registry would then need three more months to organize the referendum.

In the referendum itself, at least one-quarter of the electorate — about 7 million people — would then have to show up at polling places with the "yes" votes outnumbering the "no's" by at least one. But in Latin America it's notoriously difficult to convince citizens to turn out for referendums. That means Uribe will have to spend a lot of energy on a get-out-the-vote compaign just to ensure enough people vote to make the referendum valid. He might just barely make it across the registration deadline. If he does, he will have two-and-a-half months to election day itself, May 30.

When he first floated the idea of a third term two years ago, Uribe probably didn't expect to run out of time, but he appears to have miscalculated his support in Congress. Many lawmakers loyally back the president's policies, especially his national security program which has driven back Marxist guerrillas and led to a steep drop in homicides and kidnappings. But some fear that another four-year term would put too much power in the hands of Uribe, turning him into a right-wing version of Hugo Chávez. Others, like Senator German Vargas Lleras who is the grandson of a former president, want a crack at the top job themselves. That's why the original referendum bill in Congress would have allowed Uribe to run in 2014 but not 2010. It took months of arm-twisting by the goverment to change the language in the final version, and even at that the measure barely squeaked through: the government coalition needed 84 votes Tuesday night and got 85.

Critics question how some of those votes were nailed down. Pardo, the Liberal Party candidate, claims that wavering legislators were showered with perks ranging from new city halls and police stations in their home districts to the right to appoint prison wardens and contractors for public works projects — which can lead to lucrative kickbacks. Indeed, Uribe's original reelection drive four years ago was marred by a vote-buying scandal that led to the conviction and imprisonment of two lawmakers.

Legions of Colombians adore Uribe for restoring security and a measure of hope to Colombia, which endured four decades of guerrilla war and drug cartel shootouts. But his reelection drive may ultimately damage his legacy. Uribe's implicit message — that without him Colombia would suddenly fall back into chaos — pokes holes in his own argument that things are going along so swimmingly. In turn, his determination to run has kept other highly qualified candidates who share his governing philosophy — like Vargas Lleras and former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos — on the sidelines. Thus, if Uribe's reelection drive comes unglued, opposition candidates who have been campaigning for the past year will enjoy a big head start on the Uribistas.