The Colombia court ruling last week that blocks President Álvaro Uribe from seeking a third term put an end to nearly two years of a tense political limbo and sent candidates scrambling to see who might succeed the popular leader.
The court ruled as unconstitutional a proposed referendum that would have sought to allow Mr. Uribe to run for a third time in May elections. In a 7-to-2 ruling Feb. 26, the court said that the measure would have changed the spirit of the Constitution and that it was fraught with irregularities and “substantial violations to democratic principles.”
With Uribe – a staunch US ally whose approval ratings have consistently hovered around 60 percent – officially out of the picture, the campaign for the May 30 presidential elections began in earnest.
Uribe has not tapped anyone as his preferred successor but has called on whoever follows him to continue his “democratic security” policies. In a speech after the court’s ruling was announced he said: “We must not lose our path.”
Uribe is largely credited with bringing Colombia back from the brink of becoming a failed state, besieged by leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitary groups, and drug mafias. Through tough security policies, billions of dollars in US military aid, and the demobilization of right-wing militia armies, murder rates plunged, rebels were routed from major urban centers, and security forces regained control of areas once without a state presence.
On a pedestrian street in downtown Bogotá after the court’s ruling, Arley Mantilla, a former soldier, said the court’s ruling worried him. “I lived the fight in the jungles and I think that without that man in the presidency we could go back to where we were before,” he said, reflecting the kind of unequivocal allegiance that led many of Uribe’s backers to want to see him stay in power.
But Álvaro Páez, a doorman, said it was time for someone else to run the country. “We need a change. Enough is enough,” he said.
Who will voters turn to?
Voters who wholeheartedly backed Uribe are splintered over the other candidates. Of the 46 percent of Colombians who would have voted for Uribe had he been able to run, only 30 percent said they would transfer their vote to former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, according to one poll taken before the court decision. The other “Uribe” votes are divided among seven other candidates, ranging from conservatives Andrés Felipe and Noemí Sanín to independent centrist Sergio Fajardo.
Mr. Santos – who until the court ruling was not even a declared candidate – leads opinion polls, but with only 18 percent. After meeting with Uribe on Saturday, Santos said the president had told him: “Forge on Juan Manuel, we will win.”
Uribe also met with Mr. Arias, his former agriculture minister, who bears such an uncanny physical resemblance to the slight, bespectacled leader that he is known as Uribito or “little Uribe.” Uribe last week referred to Arias, of the Conservative Party, as a “better version” of himself.
March 14 legislative elections
On March 14, Colombians will vote in legislative elections that will be an indicator of how the political forces will regroup after the court’s ruling. That day the Conservative and Green parties also hold their primaries to choose their presidential candidates.
Following the ruling, Uribe said in an emotional speech that that he would work to “serve Colombia from any trench until the last day of my life.”
But Luis Noé Ochoa, a columnist with the daily El Tiempo newspaper, suggested Uribe instead retire to his ranch and rest. “Everything changed after the transcendental ruling. Uribe is out.”
Both El Tiempo and the influential newsmagazine Semana declared the “end of the Uribe era”. However, it is unlikely that Uribe will fade into the political background. Former environment minister Juan Lozano, who is running for a seat in congress, said that Uribe would live on through the policies he put into place. “Democratic security is now a state policy,” he said.