Colombia's Santos hints he may run again, for two years

BOGOTA Sat Apr 20, 2013 4:05am EDT

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during the inauguration of the 26th International Book Fair in Bogota April 17, 2013. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during the inauguration of the 26th International Book Fair in Bogota April 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/John Vizcaino

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BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos on Friday signaled he may run for re-election in 2014, but only if he can serve for just two more years, half the usual term, and change the rules for future heads of state.

Santos has refused to comment on his plans until the second half of 2013, but analysts say the tone of his appearances in recent months have smacked of a man already on the campaign trail.

"If I run for re-election, the next presidential mandate should be only for two years and, from then on, six years without re-election," he said in the coastal city of Cartagena.

"We'd have to look at the constitutional implications," he told a meeting of local mayors.

He did not explain why he wanted to change the amount of time a president can stay in office, or to end a president's right to stand for re-election for one consecutive second term.

Both would require constitutional changes that would have to be approved by Congress, where Santos' allies have a majority.

The 61-year-old must declare his candidacy six months before a May 2014 election, so around November, but weak poll numbers mean he probably needs to start gaining momentum now.

A poll by Invamer Gallup released in February showed Santos with 44 percent of support, the lowest since he took office in August 2010.

Santos won that vote by a landslide thanks in part to the support of his ex-boss, former President Alvaro Uribe, who is now the de-facto head of the opposition.

While Santos came to power promising to maintain Uribe's tough stance against Marxist rebels, the former defense minister took the biggest gamble of his political career when he began peace talks in November with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

The biggest risk for Santos are these on-going negotiations to put an end to five decades of bloody war, which Santos wants completed this year.

The last attempt to negotiate an end to the war in 1999-2002 ended in shambles, but the FARC has been weakened after a decade-long U.S.-backed government offensive that has killed some top rebel leaders and pushed the group to remote areas.

If peace talks succeed this time, Santos's re-election would be all but clinched.

A peace agreement could let the FARC participate in the election too, for the first time since the Marxist rebels took up arms in 1964.

Opponents will try to capitalize on whatever comes out of the peace talks currently underway in Cuba, the slowing economy and social problems such as poverty.

The main challenger next year will likely be an ally of Uribe, who is still popular for his blows against leftist rebel groups that made the Andean nation much safer. He is increasingly critical of Santos.

(Reporting by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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