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Scandals fail to dent Uribe's appeal

20 May 09 14:30 GMT

By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Bogota

There was jubilation in some quarters after Colombia's Senate voted for a referendum to decide whether to permit presidents - including incumbent Alvaro Uribe - to run for a third term in office.

"This is very important," said a triumphant Fabio Valencia, the interior minister tasked with guiding the re-election legislation through Congress.

"It means that any Colombian citizen will be able to serve his country three times as president."

President Uribe has studiously avoided saying whether he will run again, in the past maintaining that only a "catastrophe" in the country could prompt him to stand again, and more recently insisting that his only concern was ensuring that his successful "democratic security" policy continues.

Indeed, when asked directly by BBC Mundo whether he planned to run again he simply said, "Next question, friend."

But the closer the possibility of a third term comes, the more frantic the discussion on the topic, which is now the country's top political issue.

Among the doubters are committed Uribistas (supporters of the president), who have come forward to say that another consecutive term could undermine the country's democratic system.

"President Uribe has made a great contribution to his country but another re-election could be very dangerous," said Senator Marta Lucia Ramirez, President Uribe's first defence minister and now a presidential hopeful.

"Colombia's constitution was designed for just one-term presidents. Three consecutive terms threatens the checks and balances put in place."

String of scandals

A series of scandals have also raised the question of the viability of a further four years under Mr Uribe - indeed some of the scandals would have brought down a weaker president.

There is the "parapolitics" scandal, which has seen more than 70 congressmen investigated for links to the right-wing paramilitary death squads.

Seven have been convicted; many more are in prison awaiting trial. Almost all of the politicians cited are Uribe supporters.

Then there is the ongoing scandal of the "false positives", where soldiers have murdered innocent civilians, then presented them as rebels or drugs traffickers killed in combat. This is done to show results in order to get promotions and fulfil quotas, real or imagined, which are measured in bodybags filled.

There are some 900 cases under investigation with an estimated 1,600 victims spread across the country, suggesting not isolated incidents but a systematic practice within the military.

The secret police, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) is under investigation in a widespread wire-tapping scandal. Evidence has emerged that judges, opposition politicians, journalists and human rights workers have had their phones tapped for long periods of time.

What is not clear is who ordered these wiretaps, although the trail appears to end at the presidential palace and three palace officials are under investigation.

Colombia's most prestigious news magazine led the charge against re-election with a cover page demanding "NO re-election", and an article detailing the dangers of a third Uribe term: "In the current situation there is only one power: the executive... The arguments being employed in favour of re-election lack validity."

Leadership

But what is certain is that none of the scandals have damaged the standing of Mr Uribe himself. After six years in office, the Colombian president still boasts approval ratings of some 60%.

Every poll published shows that he would easily win re-election if he were able to stand.

Alfredo Rangel - of the Security and Democracy Foundation, a Bogota-based think tank - believes that Colombian democracy, the oldest and most stable in the region, can withstand a third Uribe term.

He insists that the issue is not the continuation of the president's flagship security policy, as most believe.

"The issue is not a political one, as there are many candidates who could and would continue the president's democratic security policy," said Mr Rangel. "The issue is one of leadership, and what worries most Colombians is what will happen if there is not the strong leadership that Mr Uribe has provided."

The truth is that most Colombians are prepared to risk a threat to the country's democratic balances.

What they are not prepared to risk is the war returning to their doorsteps.

"Look, seven years ago I was afraid to leave my house, let alone drive to my country house," said shoe store owner Alberto Camacho, 54.

"Now my business is thriving and every weekend I can drive three hours out of Bogota to the house. That is thanks to President Uribe and he will have my support no matter how many times he wants to stand for president."

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