Colombian senators have approved a proposed referendum that aims to change the constitution and let President Alvaro Uribe seek an unprecedented third term in 2010, though the text must still pass through the constitutional court.
REUTERS - Colombian senators on Tuesday approved a proposed referendum on whether President Alvaro Uribe can run for re-election in 2010, edging the conservative U.S. ally one step closer to an unprecedented third term.
Uribe has been evasive on whether he wants to run for re-election next year after two terms waging a successful campaign against leftist guerrillas and drawing more foreign investment to a country once written off as a failed state.
The president is hugely popular and his supporters are lobbying to get the referendum by November. But a year before the presidential election, the proposal must still get past a special lawmaker commission and the constitutional court.
"Time is of the essence here. As much as the bill has made progress, I think it is going to face a very tough slog that will test the government's resolve," said Patrick Estereulas at Eurasia Group risk consultancy.
The proposed referendum would ask Colombians if they approve of rewriting the constitution to allow a president to run for a third consecutive term.
Uribe, a Wall Street favorite, was re-elected in 2006 after supporters changed the constitution to allow him to run again and keep up his tough line with FARC rebels and cocaine traffickers. The long conflict has ebbed as troops have retaken the country with the help of billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
But critics -- even some of Uribe's backers -- worry a second rewrite will undermine the country's democratic institutions by handing too much power to the presidency.
Sixty-two senators voted in favor of the referendum proposal after two opposition parties walked out of the 102-member chamber.
"With this act they are hacking up democracy," said Senator Luis Carlos Avellaneda of the opposition Democratic Pole party.
The Uribe re-election drive parallels similar efforts by leftist leaders in the Andes such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa who both rewrote national constitutions to extend their time in power.
A recent poll showed most Colombians who said they would vote in the referendum would back Uribe's re-election. At least 25 percent of the electorate, or around 7.5 million voters, would need to take part for the referendum to be valid.
But Uribe may see his popularity slip as the world economic crisis squeezes Colombia and voters focus more on the economy than security. The government forecasts zero growth for 2009.
"Uribe's country-wide popularity has had as much to do with improved economy than with the violence issue. So a downturn or even the threat of a weakened economy is bound to affect the president's approval rating," said Phillip McLean at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Re-election supporters say Uribe is the only steady hand at the tiller of a country where until a few years ago bombings and kidnappings were daily news. Colombia is the world's top cocaine producer and the FARC remain a force in rural areas.
Still, Uribe's critics are already focusing on scandals, including a probe into illegal wiretapping of his opponents, journalists and Supreme Court judges and investigations into soldiers murdering civilians to beef up their combat figures.
Congressmen in the lower house had approved the referendum proposal but interpreted its loose wording to permit re-election only in 2014, which wouldn't apply to Uribe. But the senate said it allowed immediate re-election. A commission of lawmakers must now reach an agreement.
Senator Armando Benedetti, a staunch Uribe ally, said he expected the commission to reach a deal in ten days. Even if discussions carried over to the next congress session in late July, he expects the referendum to be held in November.
But constitutional court judges have at least two months to make a final ruling on the proposal's legality before electoral authorities can start to organize a vote.
Under law, Uribe has until the end of November to declare his candidacy for the 2010 election, but he is likely to keep his decision close for as long as possible, analysts say.
Already alternative candidates are lining up. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos resigned on Monday to seek the presidency should Uribe step aside at the end of his term. He tied in a recent poll with a former Medellin mayor.
Date created : 2009-05-20