Court clears most hurdles for a second term for Colombian president

In a triumph for pro-US president Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's top court ruled Wednesday that he will most likely be able to seek reelection next year.

After months of intense speculation, President Alvaro Uribe won a giant victory late Wednesday when the country's top court ruled that he will most likely be able to seek reelection in 2006.

After 62 votes and 18 lawsuits, the Constitutional Court dismissed nearly all arguments against the controversial amendment approved by Congress in December 2004 after frenzied lobbying by Mr. Uribe and his allies. The court ruled that Congress had not overstepped its bounds in passing the amendment, and rejected fierce opposition arguments that they hadn't been given enough time to debate.

"From the political point of view, this is a forceful Uribe victory and creates a favorable political climate for the reelection of the president," says Fernando Giraldo, dean of international relations at Bogotá's Sergio Arboleda University.

Indeed, the ruling is also a big triumph for Washington. As major countries in the region such as Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela move to the left politically, Uribe has become closely aligned with President Bush in efforts to combat drugs and terrorism.

"For the Bush administration, it means that they're extremely likely to have their best friend in power for the next four-and-a-half years in a region where they're short on friends right now," says Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy in Washington.

The court decision tips the balance of political power strongly in Uribe's favor. But not all is smooth sailing from here out. The nine-member court has until Nov. 11 to rule on the constitutionality of an electoral guarantees law that attempts to even the playing field for challengers to an incumbent president by setting campaign spending limits and restricting Uribe's access to the media.

If that law is rejected, some contend that Uribe won't be able to run in this election, but would have to wait until 2010. The law could also be returned to Congress for changes, not leaving enough time for Uribe to mount a campaign. But some believe the favorable ruling on reelection, along with public pressure, will lead to a quick approval of the guarantees law as well.

"The ideal would be a guarantees law," says Dean Giraldo, who thinks Uribe will run under any scenario.

The president's favorability ratings stand at near 80 percent, and various polls that showed overwhelming support for the idea of reelection revealed that between 53 and 56 percent of Colombians would vote to reelect Uribe in May 2006, putting the opposition at a severe disadvantage.

Uribe needs more than 50 percent to win in the first round of voting or the election would go to a second ballot.

Opposition leaders and presidential candidates greeted the court ruling with respect on Wednesday, but vowed to continue the political fight. Ex-President César Gaviria, now the head of the Liberal Party, said that the court decision "radically changes the political panorama."

"For the first time in more than 50 years, not only the president, but public officials can campaign from their desks," Gaviria complained, referring to the Uribe government's new power to shift policies in ways that bolster a reelection bid.

Ex-Minister Horacio Serpa, who lost to Uribe in 2002, reaffirmed that he would run again on the Liberal ticket. Mr. Serpa claimed that the country was "very far" from defeating leftist FARC rebels who are only likely to increase attacks as the election draws near.

Former Bogotá mayors Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa also vowed to continue in the race.

But the opposition is sorely divided and facing a president whose immense popularity is based on his providing more security to the population and launching a military attack against guerrillas, while negotiating peace with right-wing paramilitaries. Uribe has succeeded in drastically reducing kidnappings, murders, and terrorist attacks during his three years in office, although the FARC has increased attacks this past year. Even rivals say they would maintain parts of Uribe's security program.

If reelected, Uribe would be the first Colombian president to serve a second consecutive term since Rafael Nuñez in 1886. Colombia did allow reelection to nonconsecutive terms until 1991, though only one president (Alfonso López Pumarejo) was able to achieve it. Most other countries in South America allow re-election, though many nonconsecutively.

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