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Álvaro Uribe, otra vez? Colombia's re-election debate

Adam Isacson
29 May 2009

The 10 May 2009 edition of Colombia's most-circulated weekly news-magazine, Semana, had a very unusual front-cover. Instead of the usual photos of politicians or recent events, it consisted of a poster-style declaration:  four words in large type on a yellow background - No a la Reelección.

Adam Isacson is director of programmes at the Center for International Policy, Washington DC

Also by Adam Isacson in openDemocracy:

"The United States and Colombia: the next plan" (12 March 2007)

"The Colombia-Venezuela-Ecuador tangle" (14 March 2008)

"Colombia: a miraculous rescue, and what comes next" (7 July 2008)

"Colombia's imperilled democracy" (6 March 2009) For the twenty-year-old magazine to affirm an editorial position on its cover could only mean that an occasion of great political gravity was involved. This is the prospect that Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe might seek to campaign for re-election for a third term in May 2010, when his current period in office expires. This would require Colombia once more to change its constitution, as it did to allow Uribe - who took office in August 2002 - to run for a second term in 2006.

Semana is part of a host of prominent Colombian voices urging Uribe not to do it. Among those who share its view that the president must resist the temptation to go for a third term are many who, like Uribe himself, belong to the country's political right. They include those who served as his interior and defense ministers during his first term, the cardinal of Bogotá, even the pro-Uribe rock-star Juanes. Outside Colombia, the range of voices critical of another Uribe run includes the Economist, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, the Washington Post - and even the arch-conservative Peruvian novelist and politician Mario Vargas Llosa.

In strict terms Uribe hasn't said a word in public about whether he does indeed intend to run. When a reporter from BBC Mundo asked him point-blank on 4 May whether he intended to seek another term, Uribe replied: "Ask me another question, amigo. Where are you from?" The reporter replied that he was from Argentina. "Well, study your own country's history", Uribe went on. "Leave Colombia's democracy alone." On 21 May, Uribe said that the question of whether to run again had him "at what I call a crossroads of the soul."

The political odds

But while his words make it appear that he is acting out Hamlet, the president's actions belong to another play. His advisors and ministers have deployed their heaviest political artillery to push legislation through both houses of Colombia's congress - the 102-seat senado (senate) and the 166-seat cámara de representantes (house of representatives) - to enable a public referendum on the constitutional change enabling re-election. In principle this might be considered straightforward, as two-thirds of the congress is under the control of pro-Uribe parties.

The largest pro-Uribe party in congress, the La 'U' Party led by the president's long-time peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, is leading the legislative charge on behalf of the referendum. The first obstacle was overcome with ease when Colombia's senate passed the bill enabling the constitutional referendum to enable re-election, with sixty-two senators voting in favour.

Also in openDemocracy on Colombia's politics and internal violence:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (25 October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's elections: the regional exception" (10 March 2006)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's testing times" (29 March 2006)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (29 May 2006)

Jenny Pearce, "The crisis of Colombia's state" (14 May 2007)

Ana Carrigan, "Pawns of war: the Colombian hostage crisis" (15 November 2007)

Myles Frechette, "Colombia: interrupted lives" (21 January 2008)

Catalina Holguín, "Colombia: networks of dissent and power" (4 February 2008)

Jenny Pearce, "Colombia: who are the enemies of peace and democracy?" (9 April 2008)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's guerrillas: between past and future" (12 June 2008)

Andrew Stroehlein, "Medellin: revival and risk" (8 July 2008)Even potential political rivals need to tread carefully in this evolving situation. Colombia's defence minister Juan Manuel Santos, a political heavyweight, announced on 18 May his intention to resign five days later - a significant moment, because Colombian law requires officials to resign one year before an election if they intend to become candidates, and Santos's departure came just within the cut-off date for the May 2010 poll. But in making his decision, Santos had to make clear that he would not challenge Uribe if the president himself decided to run.

At the same time, the re-election drive still has a few hurdles to clear. The senate version of the referendum bill must be reconciled with a house of representatives bill that - as currently interpreted - would allow a referendum only on non-consecutive re-election. That is, the house version would require Uribe to wait until 2014 to run again. Germán Varón Cotrino, the current president of Colombia's house (a one-year position, which in his case expires in July 2009), is from a political party - the Partido Cambio Radical (PCR) - that has broken from the pro-Uribe coalition; it is not clear whether he will go along with the senate's provision allowing immediate re-election.

Even if it does pass with a 2010 referendum provision, the legislation must still be reviewed by Colombia's (frequently independent) constitutional court, which could alter key provisions. If it again emerges unscathed, the referendum would likely take place in November 2009, before the year-end holidays. In order for the results to be valid, 25% of Colombia's registered voters - about 7 million people out of a population of 46 million - would have to show up at the polls. Re-election opponents are likely to recommend that citizens abstain, a strategy that has successfully defeated referendums in Colombia's recent past.

With sufficient turnout, would Uribe win? Because of his security policies, which have weakened guerrillas, made paramilitaries less active, and reduced common crime, the president remains quite popular. Gallup's latest poll of residents with telephones in Colombia's four largest cities - which is useful for determining trends - showed him with an approval rating of 71% in early May. This is high, though he has usually been significantly higher during his seven years in office. 61% of those surveyed said that Uribe should be able to run again. 71% said they would vote in a referendum; of those, 84% said they would vote to allow Uribe to run again.

Other trends are less in Uribe's favour. A Datexco poll in April 2009 gave Uribe only 44% of intended votes in a hypothetical 2010 election. Gallup's polling has showed a majority of Colombians believing the country is "on the wrong track" since November 2008, by far the longest stretch during Uribe's presidency. The flagging economy and increasing frequency of crime in the major cities are largely to blame. Uribe himself has been hit with a series of damaging scandals: among them his political allies' association with paramilitary groups, the presidential intelligence-service's wiretapping of political opponents, campaign contributions from pyramid schemes, and even his own sons' alleged involvement in shady business deals.

Yet even with elements of Colombia's elite opposed to him, and without the overwhelming popular majorities that have supported him in the past, Álvaro Uribe would still be the odds-on favourite to win a third term in 2012. The opinion-polls that do not give him a majority still reveal him to be many points ahead of his nearest rivals, whose political standing is puny by comparison.

If Uribe does win a third term, he will join Argentina's Carlos Saúl Menem, Peru's Alberto Fujimori and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez as the only elected Latin American leaders in decades to have served for ten years or more. Those leaders' experience illustrates the danger that a president who can't seem to leave power might move the country in a decidedly authoritarian direction. But the danger to Colombia's institutions is more immediate and less hypothetical.

A Bogotá nightmare

Colombia's constitution of 1991 was designed for a political system in which the president serves a single four-year term. In all other branches of government, officials serve fixed terms. If Álvaro Uribe were to serve twelve years in office, it would be long enough for him to outlast nearly all supreme-court magistrates, the attorney-general, the human-rights ombudsman, the central-bank board, the national broadcasting board, and other officials in institutions designed to limit and oversee executive power. Moreover, the personal influence over leading institutions would be far advanced, in that the leadership of nearly all these bodies would be Uribe appointees.

What would happen if these checks and balances on the president's power disappear? It is certainly possible that President Uribe's appointees would show restraint and encourage their institutions to fulfil their missions. However, a more chilling scenario could see several alarming things happen in rapid succession:

* With a more compliant supreme court and prosecutor-general, human-rights investigations - including those against military officers accused of killing civilians - could grind to a halt. Also halted might be investigations against the president's many political allies accused of links to paramilitary groups; and investigations of abuses by the presidential intelligence service

* The power of the prosecutor's office could instead be redirected against opposition politicians, independent journalists, human-rights defenders and others who criticise the president - many of whom Uribe in the past has baselessly accused of ties to leftist guerrillas

* Laws that the constitutional court has struck down in the past could be revived. These include a anti-terror law dating from 2003 that would have eased detentions without charges, wiretaps and searches; a near-amnesty for demobilised paramilitary leaders; and land-tenure laws that would make it easier for paramilitaries to keep land that they stole from displaced people, and to limit the land rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

* Colombia could no longer have an independent monetary policy. The president's command could be enough for obedient central bankers to adjust the money-supply at the president's command, a prospect that scares investors

* The president's supporters would control the entities that issue and revoke television and radio broadcasting licenses.

The Washington fallout

Such concerns mean that the idea of a third Álvaro Uribe term is poorly received in Washington, even though the Colombian president has had a strong - some would say overly submissive - relationship with the George W Bush and (so far) Barack Obama administrations. I have yet to hear or read a public expression of support from anyone in the United States foreign-policy community - left, right or centre, government or think-tank - in favour of a third term for Álvaro Uribe. Even conservatives who supported President Bush's decision in January 2009 to grant Uribe the US Medal of Freedom (alongside Britain's Tony Blair and Australia's John Howard) will say only that they are grateful to the Colombian president...but that it would be better if he did not stay on.

If Uribe does stay on, US aid to Colombia would continue, though gradual reductions would continue from the current levels of over $500 million per year. Aid will likely become less military in nature, and more aimed at improving rural governance, judicial capacities, and assistance to displaced populations. Uribe would still be considered a friend of the United States, but he would be a friend held decidedly at arms' length, rather like Peru's Alberto Fujimori during Bill Clinton's second term. Relations with President Obama would be cordial but distant.

If Uribe announces an intention to run, the biggest Colombia-related issue before the Democratic-majority US Congress - the bilateral free-trade agreement signed in late 2006 and still awaiting ratification - would go into a deep freeze. The image of a leader changing the constitution to cling to power for what would become twelve years would be enough to sour opinion on what is already - given Colombia's severe labour-rights and human-rights challenges - a very controversial agreement. Obama administration officials would never say it out loud, but they are quite aware that a third Uribe presidential campaign would give the free-trade agreement's opponents all of the ammunition they need.

It is rare that so much hangs on the decision of a Colombian leader. This is one such moment.

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