Why Colombia's Alvaro Uribe should rule out a third term in office

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

THE SAME night that he won election to a second term as Bolivia's president earlier this month, Evo Morales began hinting about plans to stand for a third. That was no surprise: The elimination of presidential term limits has been a common feature of the new authoritarian populism in Latin America. After two tries, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez managed to remove the limit on his tenure through a referendum; Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega relied on a decision by the country's Supreme Court, which he had previously stacked with his followers. Suspicions that Honduran President Manuel Zelaya wanted to lift a presidential term limit prompted the prolonged political crisis in that country.

This systematic erosion of political institutions and the rule of law is one of the ways in which Mr. Chávez and his followers threaten to drag Latin America back to its bad old days of caudillos and coups. Nations that have tried to leave that history behind have an obligation to establish a clear alternative model based on rule by the people, not a series of strongmen. That is why it is so important that the man who in many ways embodies the alternative to Chavismo, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, firmly commit himself against seeking a third term in next year's presidential election.

Mr. Uribe, who has been in office since 2002, has made Colombia a mirror image of neighboring Venezuela. While homicides and kidnappings have soared in Mr. Chávez's Venezuela, they have dropped precipitously in Colombia. Mr. Uribe has steadily professionalized his country's security forces, even as Venezuela's have been corrupted and politicized. And in Colombia, a free press, independent courts and a free-market economy have flourished, while in Venezuela all have been suppressed.

Thanks to such successes, Mr. Uribe continues to be extremely popular. After a change in the constitution, he easily won reelection in 2006 and most Colombians believe he could do so again next May. But another constitutional change would be required. Congress has approved it; a Supreme Court decision expected early next year will decide whether a referendum can be held to remove the current term limit. Mr. Uribe might not win the referendum, since it requires a high level of participation by voters. But, win or lose, the process threatens to seriously disrupt the presidential campaign and make it extremely difficult for Mr. Uribe's supporters to rally behind another candidate before the election.

Mr. Uribe has not said whether he will seek another term, and in public he has expressed ambivalence about it. Some analysts believe he wishes to avoid becoming a lame duck for as long as possible or that he wants the option to run again and then withdraw. Whatever the case, one of Colombia's most successful presidents is endangering his legacy, as well as the cause of liberal democracy in the region. It's time for Mr. Uribe to do his country one last great service -- by ruling out a third consecutive term.

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