Ruling on Uribe's reelection bid may spark violence

Colombia's top court cleared the way, after 18 lawsuits, for the president to run.

A decision that most likely will open the door to a second term for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe may also spark an increase in violence by the country's left-wing rebels after three years of relative quiet.

President Uribe won a giant victory last week when the country's top court ruled that he will probably be able to seek reelection in 2006.

After 62 votes and 18 lawsuits, the Constitutional Court dismissed nearly all arguments against the controversial amendment allowing him to run again, approved by Congress in December 2004.

"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.

The ruling is also a triumph for Washington. As countries 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.

Despite the constitutional victory, however, Uribe faces a significant test as the left-wing FARC intensifies attacks in the run-up to the campaign.

"The FARC was already planning a counteroffensive until the end of Uribe's term," says security analyst Alfredo Rangel. "The fact that Uribe is in the electoral contest will make that offensive more intensive."

Mr. Rangel says the FARC may try to call into question the efficacy of Uribe's "democratic security" strategy, which has dramatically reduced kidnappings, homicides, and terrorist attacks.

As a result, Colombians are likely to see further economic sabotage, attacks on military bases, and urban terror plots on political targets similar to the assassination attempt in Bogotá recently of Uribista Sen. German Vargas Lleras, he says.

The president's favorability ratings stand at near 80 percent, and 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.

Uribe needs more than 50 percent to win in the first round of voting or a second ballot is required.

The popular president still faces hurdles before his candidacy is confirmed. 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 by setting campaign spending limits and restricting access to the media.

If that law is rejected, some say that Uribe would have to wait to run until 2010. The law could also be returned to Congress for changes, not leaving enough time for Uribe to mount a campaign.

But some say the favorable ruling on reelection, and public pressure, will yield quick approval of the guarantees law.

Opposition leaders and presidential candidates greeted the ruling with respect on Wednesday, but vowed to continue the political fight.

"For the first time in more than 50 years, not only the president, but public officials can campaign from their desks," complained ex-President César Gaviria, now the head of the Liberal Party, referring to the government's new power to shift policies to 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 FARC rebels.

But the opposition is divided and facing a president whose popularity has been based on providing more security during his three years in office and launching a military attack against guerrillas, while negotiating peace with right-wing paramilitaries.

If Uribe is reelected, the FARC and Uribe may both have an interest in seeing peace talks become part of a second-term agenda.

"In a second term, Uribe is going to open some opportunity for peace with the guerrillas," Rangel contends.

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