Colombia Gets Ready for Life After Uribe

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Christinne Muschi / Reuters

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe

President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia has been Washington's most fervent ally in a region where leftist leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez have been flexing their muscles and speaking their minds out loud. First elected in 2002, Uribe spent an ironfisted four-year term re-establishing order in a country devastated by leftist rebels, paramilitary groups and drug gangs, winning the respect of much of the populace — enough so that the constitution was amended to allow him a second term. But he wanted a third term and, with approval ratings at about 70% throughout 2009, seemed on the verge of winning it when Colombia's Congress called for a national referendum on the issue. For a year, the country's politics was in a state of limbo as the legislature, the courts, the press and the public debated whether to allow Uribe to run again. Late on Friday, the answer came down as a resounding no.

The country's Constitutional Court rejected holding the national referendum that would have allowed Uribe a third run for the presidency. With a 7-to-2 ruling, the court said the referendum law presented "substantial violations to the democratic principle" and that its passage was laden with irregularities. Uribe said he respected the court's decision, which cannot be appealed. With Uribe now barred from running, the ruling throws open the electoral race — as well as the legacy of his brand of politics, known as Uribismo.

Colombia has received more than $6 billion since 2000 in mostly military aid from Washington, mainly because of U.S. concerns over security, drugs and broader regional instability. "Colombia is an important piece in that picture," says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. However, despite Washington's praise for the progress made under Uribe's leadership, the rejection of another re-election bid actually "helps American relations a lot," says Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert with the Washington-based Center for International Policy. "I don't think the Obama Administration was really relishing the idea of having to work with an ally in his third term and clearly unwilling to give up power." That would be not just because of concerns over an erosion of democracy and the monopoly on power by one leader but also because the U.S. has criticized Venezuela's Chávez for trying to extend his rule in a similar way.

There are many viable candidates but no clear front-runner for the presidential election scheduled to be held May 30. Candidates belonging to the parties in Uribe's ruling coalition are expected to keep his hard-line "democratic security" policy and Uribismo alive. "Uribe represented a part of Uribismo, but there is also Uribismo without Uribe that will try to continue," says Jaime Araújo Renteria, a former head of the Constitutional Court and current presidential candidate. Congressional elections March 14 will help indicate the strength of Uribe's alliance.

The legacy of Uribismo appears potent. Uribe gained broad popularity among Colombians for cracking down on insurgents and improving security in much of the country. Before Uribe was first elected, "there was a real lack of capacity of the state, and that problem is not as serious as it was eight years ago," says Shifter. Uribe's supporters say that Uribe will leave behind a government more capable of tackling new challenges, including a problematic economy, growing urban crime and rearming paramilitary groups.

His opponents, however, say Uribe concentrated his power in his second term and that four more years of his leadership would have threatened vital institutional checks and balances. His second term has been marred by scandals over the illegal wiretapping of his opponents by the state intelligence agency, human-rights abuses by the army and links of his political allies to paramilitary groups. Critics of Uribismo say it has brought stability at the expense of human rights, ceding too much control to the military.

Uribe himself has said that security gains are not yet irreversible; and many Colombians still see him as the only politician capable of maintaining them. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of people willing to try to replace him. Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe's former Defense Minister who leads the President's own Social National Unity Party, is largely seen as his favored successor. He declared his candidacy immediately following the referendum's rejection by the Constitutional Court. Sergio Fajardo, praised for improving security and social services when he served as mayor of Medellín, is steadily climbing in the polls, though running as an independent is expected to be a disadvantage for him. Several candidates are vying to represent the Conservative Party that is part of Uribe's alliance.

Despite widespread support for the President's policies, there is little question Uribismo will be weakened without the man himself to stand up for it; many of the votes that would have gone to Uribe will be up for grabs. "A lot of people voted for Uribe not because they really liked Uribismo," says Isacson. "So you could see voters being drawn off to other more charismatic candidates who are not Uribistas."

According to German Medina, who has advised presidential campaigns for over 15 years and is currently head of strategy for Fajardo's campaign, Colombians tend to vote for a candidate and not their party. So who will the die-hard Uribe fans gravitate toward? "They are a block of ice that hasn't wanted to move. But with Uribe gone, it will melt, and the question is: To whom will the waters flow?" says Alvaro Forero, a political scientist and newspaper columnist.

Naturally, candidates outside Uribe's alliance hope for major shifts in the electoral landscape. "If the President can't run, there will be a change in popular support," says Rafael Pardo, the Liberal Party's presidential candidate. Pardo believes traditionally Liberal voters who switched their allegiance to support Uribe will return to the Liberal Party. In any case, the candidates have precious little time to gear up for the vote. "It's clear the [debate over the term-limits] referendum did a lot of damage because it cost the electoral campaign almost a year of analysis, and a country as complicated as Colombia needs a lot of analysis," says Forero.

With the referendum debacle out of the way, Medina believes Colombians will now turn their attention to the candidate debates that are normally part of any electoral process. "The people will be left an orphan, and they are now going to look for a new papa," says Medina.