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Colombia's President Seeks Referendum on Disputed '06 Reelection

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 28, 2008

Colombia's Supreme Court on Thursday questioned the legitimacy of President Álvaro Uribe's reelection in 2006, prompting Uribe to call on Congress to enable a new presidential election that could ultimately extend his stay in office.

The president's decision to seek a referendum on whether to hold a rerun of the 2006 election plunged the South American country into what the largest newspaper, El Tiempo, called "confusion and uncertainty" yesterday.

Some analysts said it appeared that Uribe saw the plebiscite as a way to gain popular support and propel efforts by his supporters, who would like him to run for a third term, which is not permitted under the current constitution.

Uribe won his first four-year term in 2002, and enjoys popularity ratings of over 70 percent. He has declined to reveal whether he would entertain steps that would allow him to seek another term, keeping Colombia's political establishment on edge for months.

"Uribe clearly wants reelection," said Mark Schneider, an analyst with the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, which produces in-depth reports on Colombia.

Yesterday, the opposition Polo Democratic Party accused Uribe of trampling over institutions. Critics compared him to former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who installed a quasi-dictatorship in Peru by leveraging his popularity to take control of Congress.

Political analysts said that Uribe's reaction to the court's ruling would not be viewed favorably in Washington, where Congress has shelved a proposed free-trade agreement with Colombia. Though the Bush administration praises Uribe for having stabilized a once-chaotic country, some influential Democrats, including Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), have raised concerns about Uribe's confrontational behavior.

"He's combative, he's impulsive, and he didn't like the court's decision," said Michael Shifter, a senior analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington who closely follows Colombia. "It's him saying, 'I'm going to show you how popular I am, how loved I am.' That's the refuge for him, the people."

Uribe has repeatedly lashed out at the Supreme Court in recent months. First, it was over the court's aggressive investigations of scores of lawmakers linked to death squads, virtually all of them allies of the president, the most prominent his cousin, former senator Mario Uribe.

The Uribe administration has more recently feuded with the court as it investigated Congress's approval of a 2004 constitutional amendment that allowed Uribe to run for a second term. Yidis Medina, a former member of Congress, was recently found to have changed her vote and supported that amendment in exchange for jobs for political allies.

Using unusually blunt language, the court questioned the legality of the steps taken by Congress to approve Uribe's reelection in 2006 and called for a review by Colombia's other high judicial body, the Constitutional Court, as well as the inspector general's office.

The Supreme Court said a crime cannot "generate constitutional or legal legitimacy, reason by which the court orders this sentence to go to the Constitutional Court and the Inspector General of the nation." The Supreme Court did not annul the 2006 election, which Uribe won in a landslide.

Uribe, speaking on national television just before midnight Thursday, characterized the court's decision as "an abuse of power" designed to usurp authority from other institutions. By yesterday, the government had called on the Supreme Court's penal tribunal, which had issued the ruling, to be investigated for links to paramilitary commanders.

"The court went overboard," José Obdulio Gaviria, a top presidential adviser, told La W Radio in Bogota. He said that the court had "put in doubt the Colombian reelection" and that the government decided it was necessary to go to "the highest body, which is the people."

In a TV interview aired earlier this year, Medina made detailed allegations that high government officials offered jobs to her allies in exchange for her vote.

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