Álvaro Uribe pushes his luck
THOSE among Álvaro Uribe’s closest collaborators who harbour presidential ambitions waited patiently throughout 2008 for their boss to decide whether or not he will try to seek a third term himself in a presidential election due in 2010. He coyly refused to commit himself. But soon enough he will have to. In March Colombia’s Senate is due to debate a bill to hold a referendum on changing the constitution to allow Mr Uribe to run again. And ministers and legislators must resign their jobs by May if they want to be eligible to stand themselves.
Since he became president in 2002 Mr Uribe has overseen a big security build-up and a steady fall in violence, especially in the populated central part of the country. Partly because of the resulting boost to confidence, the economy has grown strongly. His popularity allowed Mr Uribe to persuade Congress and the courts to approve a constitutional change allowing him to run for (and duly win) a second term in 2006. There followed a series of debilitating scandals over links to right-wing paramilitaries which shook the government—and then a string of successes last year against the FARC guerrillas which have invigorated it.
While his supporters last year gathered 4m signatures calling for a referendum, Mr Uribe neither backed nor shunned their efforts. But last month he gave the clearest sign yet that he wants the referendum bill to be approved. During a 17-hour debate in the lower house on the last day of the parliamentary year, he first sent ministers to press waverers and then issued a decree allowing the session to continue past midnight. That was enough to ensure the bill’s passage to the Senate.
A third term for Mr Uribe still faces big obstacles. As approved the bill would allow him to run again only in 2014, not 2010. Officials say that they will try to change the wording in the Senate, where the measure commands greater support. But the legality of such a change will eventually be decided by the Constitutional Court. And the electoral authority is still investigating who financed the petition campaign, how the funds were used and whether it breached spending limits.
The earliest a referendum could be held is December. And by then the political weather may have changed. Colombia has traditionally been wary of strong presidents. In allowing Mr Uribe to run in 2006 the Constitutional Court appeared to have been swayed by the president’s overwhelming public support.
According to Invamer-Gallup, a pollster, Mr Uribe’s popularity rating remains above 70%. But only 54% of those asked supported his re-election, down by 20 points since July. At the end of last year the government was shaken by the anger of thousands of savers bilked when several pyramid schemes collapsed. Last year inflation nipped at living standards. Now the economy is starting to slow, hit by the woes of the United States and Venezuela, Colombia’s main export markets.
Even if Colombians do decide they want their president to carry on, the outside world might be alarmed at the prospect. On January 13th George Bush is to bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Mr Uribe in honour of their close alliance. But Barack Obama may be less supportive, especially since Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s leftist president with whom the United States has testy relations, is also seeking to lift a bar on a third consecutive presidential term. Mr Uribe risks looking as autocratic as his neighbour.
Several of the president’s closest allies may be hoping even more fervently that he desists. Juan Manuel Santos, the defence minister, would be a strong contender in 2010, but has said he will not run against his boss. So has Fernando Araújo, a former guerrilla hostage and later foreign minister. But Germán Vargas Lleras, a hitherto loyal senator, says that he will stand for president whatever Mr Uribe decides. By prolonging the suspense about his intentions, Mr Uribe has managed to avoid becoming a prematurely lame duck. But he might be well advised to conclude that waiting until 2014 would be both statesmanlike and expedient