Colombia's Uribe refuses to rule out third term

Wed Jun 4, 2008 5:41pm EDT

(Adds Goldman Sachs statement in paragraph nine)

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, June 4 (Reuters) - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose "Democratic Security" policies have put leftist rebels on the defensive and sparked economic growth, refused on Wednesday to rule out a third run for office.

Uribe, elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006 after Congress passed a constitutional amendment allowing a second term, is flirting with running again in 2010. This would require another change in law.

"We seek to assure the re-election of Democratic Security and investor confidence," Uribe told local radio when asked if he would like to run again, declining to endorse allies such as Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos who are possible candidates.

Colombia, in the grips of a four-decade-old guerrilla insurgency funded by the cocaine trade, is home to regular political violence against trade unionists and others suspected of pro-rebel sympathies.

Uribe characterized left-leaning opposition politicians such as former presidential candidate Carlos Gaviria as having affinities with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which is also notorious for killing civilians.

"They want to move backward and turn the country over to the FARC, which we are not going to permit," the 55-year-old Uribe said.

Rights groups say such statements by the government put opposition figures at risk of violence by right-wing paramilitary groups.

Uribe is a Wall Street favorite but many investors and analysts say a third term by the bespectacled conservative would present a threat to the independence of Colombian institutions, such as the courts and the central bank.

Goldman Sachs on Wednesday blasted Uribe for his habit of pressuring the central bank to lower interest rates, calling it "unfortunate from an institutional standpoint and also unwarranted from an economic perspective."

The U.S. Congress has blocked a Colombian trade deal saying Uribe has failed to crack down on right-wing violence amid a scandal linking some of his allies to the paramilitaries.

But he remains a hero to many at home for pushing the FARC out of urban areas and back into the jungles with the help of billions of dollars in U.S. military aid. This has attracted investment and prompted 7.5 percent economic growth last year.

The president's strongest supporters -- called "Furibistas" in Spanish, or "furious Uribe followers" -- are collecting signatures in favor of a referendum to ask voters if they want to allow Uribe to run again in two years. (Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Anthony Boadle)




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