Is Colombia's Uribe pulling a Chávez on term limits?

Colombian lawmakers voted Tuesday to call a referendum on whether the conservative US ally should be allowed to seek a third straight term.

By , Correspondent

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    Colombia's Interior and Justice Minister, Fabio Valencia (c.) celebrates with lawmakers after voting during a session of the Colombian Chamber of Representatives in Bogota on Tuesday.
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Colombian lawmakers voted Tuesday to call a referendum on whether conservative President Álvaro Uribe – a key US ally in a region now dominated by leftist leaders – should be allowed to seek a third straight term in office.

With 85 votes – the measure needed 84 to pass – the lower house of the Congress gave the green light to the referendum which, if approved, would allow Mr. Uribe to run in the May 2010 presidential elections.

If allowed to run, Uribe would most likely win, according to polls. The bespectacled leader has maintained sky-high approval ratings during his seven years in office. He is credited with bringing Colombia back from the brink of collapse by beating back leftist rebels from major urban areas and bringing rampant violence under control.

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But the vote, which has been dogged by allegations of irregularities, has angered critics and even some of Uribe's staunchest allies. They worry that if Uribe wins a third term, it could endanger Colombian democracy in the same way that many of the region's leftist leaders have done in recent years.

"The best example of what could happen is Venezuela," warned opposition lawmaker Germán Varón, referring to the erosion of checks and balances in Venezuela after a decade of President Hugo Chávez's rule.

Scrapping term limits: It's all the rage

Throughout Latin America, governments have been changing constitutions to allow reelection, once banned almost regionwide to prevent the rise of strongmen. But presidents have found one term too short to follow through on their policies.

Constitutions have been changed within the past few years to allow at least one reelection in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

But the change is not welcomed everywhere. The June ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was sparked in part by his alleged attempt to change the Constitution to allow him to run for a second term.

A race against time for Uribe

Before a referendum on allowing Uribe to run for a third consecutive term can be organized, the bill must be reviewed by the country's Constitutional Court, which could take months, leaving little time to hold the vote before the presidential election.

The court will look not just at the essence of the call for a referendum but at the way the measure was passed, which has been fraught with accusations of irregularities. "The constitutional court has been watching the proceedings very closely," says Elizabeth Ungar, a political analyst and director of a congressional watchdog group called Congreso Visible.

Could the Supreme Court reject the move?

Questions over the financing of the petition campaign that collected signatures in favor of the referendum and the way the measure was voted in Congress led the Supreme Court to open an investigation into the behavior of 86 lawmakers. In its passage through Congress, the ambiguous wording of the referendum question was changed to make clear that the president could aspire to a third consecutive term, rather than after four-year hiatus. And opposition lawmakers said that government officials were offering political favors to members of Congress in exchange for voting for the referendum bill.

On the same day the referendum bill passed, an arrest warrant was issued for a senator charged with receiving political favors from government officials in 2004, when Congress approved Uribe's first reelection. Two other lawmakers were convicted of accepting favors to change their vote in favor of reelection in 2004.

Says Ms. Ungar: "There are a lot of reasons to believe the constitutional court could reject [the bill]."

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