Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

War of words over Colombia poll

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe
Mr Uribe has not spoken publicly about a possible third term

The long debate over whether Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe can run for a third term has taken another twist.

The lower house of Congress has backed a referendum on whether he should be allowed to run, but in the 2014 not the 2010 election.

The wrangling has been so intense that the Colombian Academy of Language was asked to rule on the exact meaning of the words in the proposal.

The Senate will debate the proposal and could reinstate the 2010 date.

Mr Uribe himself has not said publicly whether he would wish to seek a third term.

He was first elected in 2002 and then re-elected in May 2006 after Congress controversially approved a constitutional change eliminating the rule limiting the president to one term in office.

Supporters of Mr Uribe, who enjoys high approval ratings, have been pushing hard for another constitutional change to allow him to seek a third consecutive term in 2010.

The referendum proposal, which garnered five million signatures, would ask voters if they approved of someone who "has held" the office for two consecutive terms being allowed to seek a third term.

Pluperfect participle

Colombians pride themselves on speaking and writing a correct form of Spanish, and debates over language are common, says BBC Mundo's correspondent in Bogota, Hernando Salazar.

Cleobulo Sabogal
Language doubts: Colombians can call Cleobulo Sabogal

The formulation "has held" provoked just such a debate.

The Colombian Academy of Language was brought in to adjudicate in the form of Cleobulo Sabogal, the man in charge of replying to all doubts and questions over the language use.

Mr Sabogal's verdict was that "has held" - in this case Mr Uribe's second term in office - would only be concluded on 7 August 2010, that is after the elections due in May.

For the opposition, this clearly rules out Mr Uribe running in the next presidential election.

Opposition politician Carlos Arturo Piedrahita explained the ruling to BBC Mundo, in terms not for the grammatically faint-hearted.

"'Has held' is a verbal inflection of a pluperfect participle. 'Has held' means 'has governed' and that will only be concluded on 7 August 2010," he said.

But others say that the confusion is due to an error in drafting the proposal and that can be rectified when the Senate, where the government has a majority, debates it.

"It's obvious that the only meaning the proposed referendum had was to allow immediate re-election," said presidential adviser Jose Obdulio Gaviria.

The debate will resume next year, with politicians perhaps advised to brush up on their grammar in the meantime.

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