Colombian Senate Approves Bill Allowing Uribe to Seek Third Term

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 21, 2009

BOGOTA, Colombia, Aug. 20 -- President Álvaro Uribe, whose government has forged a close alliance with the United States to fight Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers, stepped closer to extending his presidency with Colombian Senate approval of a bill permitting him to run for a third term.

A month ago, the influential newsmagazine Semana declared Uribe's chances for another bid "dead." Even some of his supporters said that not enough time remained for the country's highest court to approve a constitutional amendment allowing him to run in the May election and for authorities to convene a referendum asking Colombians whether they approved of a third term.

But the president's supporters in Congress were buoyant after the Senate voted 56 to 2 late Wednesday to hold a referendum. Uribe's opponents, who say the reelection effort violates the constitution, boycotted the vote.

"Thank you, in the name of all those Colombians who believe in the Democratic Security policies that have brought back hope to the country," Fabio Valencia Cossio, the interior and justice minister, who is spearheading the reelection drive, told the lawmakers.

Uribe, elected in a landslide in 2002, was reelected in 2006 after Congress approved a constitutional amendment that allowed him to run for a second term. During his tenure, the government has received more than $5 billion in U.S. aid to reorganize a once-hapless military and establish an ambitious drug-fumigation program.

But his administration has been mired in scandals that increasingly concern some U.S. leaders. Some of Uribe's top aides are under investigation in a wire-tapping case. Others on Capitol Hill also question giving more U.S. aid to the armed forces after several army units were implicated in the killings of as many as 1,600 civilians in an effort to inflate the number of combat kills.

"The United States' taxpayers have sent a boatload of money," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said in a phone interview. "I think we should be expecting more from their performance and more in their respect for human rights than we've seen."

Uribe, who has been coy about whether he wants a third term, still faces obstacles to extending his presidency. A vote on the referendum bill is expected next week in the House, where it will be tougher for the government to muster the necessary 84 votes.

Constitutional experts have said that a third term would upset the balance of powers established in the 1991 constitution. They say that with his second term, which was not envisioned in that constitution, Uribe has accumulated immense influence over the Central Bank, the attorney general's office, the Constitutional Court and other institutions.

But many Colombians say another term would permit Uribe to advance further against a 45-year-old insurgency that has lost some of its key leaders to army offensives and desertions.

Uribe's supporters, including Republicans in the U.S. Congress, also see him as a stalwart U.S. ally and a bulwark against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who, along with the presidents of Ecuador and Bolivia, is a vehement opponent of U.S. policies. Uribe's government is negotiating a pact with the Obama administration that would deploy U.S. servicemen and aircraft to Colombian military bases.

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