Uribe edges towards autocracy

A popular president seems to be heading towards a third term, despite the damage this would do to democracy.

ONCE a country with a healthy, even exaggerated, distrust of executive power, Colombia is on the brink of allowing Álvaro Uribe to seek an unprecedented third consecutive term as president. The Senate is due to vote on May 19th on a bill to call a referendum on the required change in the constitution. Once the text is reconciled with a version already approved by the lower house, it would be reviewed by the Constitutional Court, and could be put to the people in November. Mr Uribe has still not said whether he intends to run in the election due in May 2010, but he has done nothing to discourage the idea. If he is a candidate, on present trends he would win. But some influential Colombians—and outsiders—believe a third term would be a huge mistake for both Mr Uribe and his country.

Many Colombians credit Mr Uribe with transforming their homeland from a near-failed state to a buoyant, if still violent, place. Their gratitude won him a second term in 2006, after the constitution was changed to allow a second consecutive term. After seven years in office, he still enjoys an approval rating of 71%, according to Invamer-Gallup, a pollster. In a poll this month, 59% said they would turn out for a referendum; of those, 84% said they would back Mr Uribe’s right to run again.

The president has said that his overriding concern is the continuation of his “democratic security” policies, which have curbed violence, weakened leftist guerrillas and demobilised many right-wing paramilitaries. But in the same breath he suggested that he alone can ensure that this progress will continue: “Perpetuating oneself in the presidency troubles me, but I cannot be politically irresponsible,” he declared.

Some of those who oppose a third term have been among Mr Uribe’s closest aides. They include Fabio Echeverri, who ran both his presidential campaigns. There is some hesitation among government legislators: the Senate vote was postponed this week, though the main stumbling block involved demands for political favours.

“No to re-election”, declared Semana, Colombia’s leading newsweekly (which has generally been critical of the president), on its cover this week. Its main argument was that the checks and balances in the constitution are designed for a four-year presidential term and that an erosion of the separation of powers under Mr Uribe would be aggravated by a third term.

Such worries are all the greater because Mr Uribe’s rule has not been free of abuses and scandals. These include the army murdering innocent civilians and disguising their corpses as guerrillas killed in combat. This prompted the government to sack 30 officers last October, including three generals. So far 22 soldiers, including three colonels, have been arrested over these crimes. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last year complained of “widespread and systematic” killings of civilians by the army. Prosecutors at the attorney-general’s office are investigating 1,296 such allegations since 2002.

The government insists that it is committed to ending and punishing such abuses, which it says are isolated. But its allies abroad seem to be becoming more sceptical. Mr Uribe enjoyed a close friendship with George Bush. The Democrats who control the American Congress have held up ratification of a free-trade agreement with Colombia, ostensibly because of worries about the killings of trade unionists. In March Britain announced that it was ending a scheme under which it trained Colombian soldiers in human rights (though it is maintaining counter-drug aid and giving money to civic groups and the judiciary). David Miliband, the foreign secretary, expressed concern that “there are officers and soldiers of the Colombian armed forces who have been involved in, or allowed, abuses.”

Another running sore involves the civilian intelligence service, known as DAS. Three successive directors of this body, each chosen by Mr Uribe, are being questioned by prosecutors over claims that DAS illegally spied on opposition politicians, journalists and Supreme Court justices. On May 8th the first of the three, Jorge Noguera, was charged with conspiracy and murder. He is accused of colluding with paramilitaries and helping to plan the murders of an academic, a journalist, a union leader and a politician.

Mr Uribe will shortly have the chance to propose a new attorney-general, who critics worry may be less zealous than Mario Iguarán, the incumbent. In a third term, the president could fill the Constitutional Court with his nominees. Senior judicial appointments must be ratified by Congress, but the president has enjoyed a comfortable legislative majority.

A second argument wielded by opponents of a third term is that national priorities have changed. Polls find that the economy tops security as a public concern. That is partly a tribute to Mr Uribe’s success, and partly a consequence of gathering recession. Third, Mr Uribe risks aggravating a worrying regional trend. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez recently won a referendum abolishing term limits and followed it up by harassing opponents.

Assuming that Mr Uribe is not simply bluffing, and that his supporters in the Senate do not have second thoughts, would he really win? A deteriorating economy is probably the biggest threat to a third term. But Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank, says that because he is seen as a “crisis president”, this could even help him.

There are other strong candidates. Juan Manuel Santos, the defence minister, is expected to resign soon in order to run, though he says he would not do so against Mr Uribe. Another contender is Sergio Fajardo, an independent who was a reforming mayor of Medellín, Colombia’s second city. If he doesn’t quit while he is still ahead, history may judge that Mr Uribe began to undo his own achievement.
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