Colombia's president faces make-or-break weekend

Tomorrow's 15-point referendum has become a plebiscite on the agenda of the Uribe presidency.

It's hard to underestimate what's at stake for Colombia this weekend.

Tomorrow, Colombians go to the polls to vote on a controversial 15-point referendum aimed at, among other things, cutting corruption and government spending. President Alvaro Uribe has staked his political future on its passage.

On Sunday, nationwide elections will be held in a climate where 26 candidates for mayor, governor, and town council have been killed by armed rebel groups. Many towns and villages are not even fielding candidates.

Both votes will change the country's political landscape and determine how the remaining three years of Mr. Uribe's presidency play out. If the referendum passes, Uribe will have a virtual carte blanche to continue his hard-line approach to ending the country's 39-year civil war. If it fails, analysts say, his political opposition becomes reinvigorated and, more significantly, rebel groups could become emboldened.

"If President Uribe wins the referendum, all of his [other] projects will pass without any obstacles," says Fernando Giraldo, a dean of political science at Bogotá's Javeriana University. "If he loses, it will provoke an artificial crisis" in his ability to govern.

Those other projects include alternative penalties for right-wing paramilitaries, an antiterror statute that would give the military judicial powers, and a law allowing the president to seek a second term - which could be retroactively applied to Uribe.

These proposals will die if the referendum fails, say observers, and the president would have to look to alternative measures to rescue the country's foundering economy, including imposing unpopular new tax increases.

One of the government's biggest obstacles to getting the referendum passed is its sheer complexity. The 15 questions fill an entire newspaper page and take an an estimated 22 minutes to read. Uribe has stressed its anticorruption planks - making the votes of elected officials public, prohibiting congressmen from replacing themselves with other people from their party (often done to get pension benefits), and strengthening the ability to remove public officials from their positions.

With many Colombians having only the faintest idea of what the referendum contains, Uribe has successfully turned the vote into a plebiscite on his wildly popular presidency. The latest poll shows him with a 75 percent favorable rating.

But his popularity hasn't necessarily translated into support for his political project. The same poll shows that only 23 percent "definitely" plan to vote tomorrow. Another 7 percent said they might "possibly" vote, which would barely meet the threshold of 25 percent of the electorate needed for the referendum to count.

In recent weeks, Uribe has waged an all-out campaign that included an appearance on a hit reality-TV show. He said that the best way to fight terrorism was to go to the polls in "massive numbers." And last week, in a long appearance on a morning TV show, Uribe said Colombia would face an economic crisis like Argentina's if the referendum failed.

Critics call this grandstanding. Former Finance Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo, leader of a group promoting a "no" vote on some of the referendum's points, accuses Uribe of playing on people's emotions when referring to fighting terrorism and making comparisons to Argentina.

"The referendum doesn't have anything to do with the fight against terrorism," Mr. Restrepo says, adding that Uribe is trying to equate the "friends of terrorism with the enemies of the referendum."

Most observers agree that the reform will help save money for a government with a huge fiscal deficit and external debt. Among the more controversial proposals are moves that would eliminate 67 regional controllers' offices and freeze salaries and pension benefits for two years for all but the lowest-paid public officials, engendering strong opposition from the country's 940,000 public servants. Union groups, most prominently teachers, are promoting "active abstention," hoping to render the referendum void.

Manuel Jair Castaño, who is running for mayor in this noisy hamlet in the suburbs of Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín, is wavering in his support for the referendum. Though Mr. Jair says he personally will vote for the measure, he is not aggressively campaigning for it. With all the dangers surrounding the municipal elections, Jair and others already have their hands full.

"In my case, I don't want to commit myself," Jair says. "For me, it is more important to be mayor."

Still, Uribe's popularity might be enough to get the referendum passed, despite all the obstacles. "I'm not really familiar with [the referendum]," says Alirio Posada, a retired state worker. "But [Uribe] says it's good and everyone trusts in him."

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