Colombia re-election ruling could take months

Fri Oct 30, 2009 10:59am EDT

* Time running thin for Pres. Uribe's re-election effort

* The president's supporters want quick court decision

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Colombian judges may not rule on President Alvaro Uribe's re-election bill until February or later, the top justice examining the case said, laying out a tight schedule for the popular leader to run next year.

The bill, which has been passed by Congress, calls for a referendum to ask voters if they want to amend the constitution to allow Uribe to run for an unprecedented third term in May.

Uribe opponents want the court to take its time reviewing the measure and let the clock run out on a possible third term. His supporters are asking for a quick court decision.

"It could be done in January or early February, but it could take more time," said Nilson Pinilla, head of the Constitutional Court, which is reviewing the proposal.

In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Pinilla described 18-hour work days in which he and eight other judges examine more than 100,000 pages of documents related to the case.

A ruling after mid-February could make it hard for authorities to organize a referendum in time for the president to win permission to run in the May election.

Twenty-five percent of registered voters would have to participate in the referendum for it to be valid.

Uribe, seen as a hero by many for pushing Marxist rebels on the defensive with help from billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, won a second term in 2006 after Congress lifted a constitutional ban on running for one re-election.

Most Colombians want him to stay in power another four years. Opponents say the president already holds too much power and a third term would unbalance the country's democracy.

Uribe is not saying whether he wants to run next year, but his government lobbied Congress hard for the referendum bill.

"If the court rules in his favor by mid-February, the referendum will probably pass and Uribe will run and win because, in practical terms, he has been campaigning for this since he was first elected in 2002," said Mauricio Romero, political scientist at Bogota's Javeriana University.

Popular opinion is firmly behind the project, but Pinilla says the court will not be swayed by politics.

"We have to be immune to the opinion polls," he said. "This will be a legal decision, not a political one." (Editing by Alan Elsner)




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