June 30, 2008 / 3:40 PM / 9 years ago

Colombia polarized by Uribe's battle with courts

<p>Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe speaks during a conference about political security in Bogota, June 13, 2008.Jose Miguel Gomez</p>

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe deepened his feud with the courts on Monday by going ahead with plans for a referendum aimed at rerunning the 2006 election in which he won a second term.

The popular leader reacted angrily to last week's Supreme Court ruling that said a former lawmaker was bribed by high government officials to support the constitutional amendment that allowed Uribe to seek re-election.

The judges recommended a legal review of the 2006 vote but rather than wait for that, the U.S-backed president wants to take his case directly to voters.

Uribe's move throws politics into turmoil as his long-simmering feud with Colombia's courts over his hard-line policies breaks into an open clash.

After the bribery ruling was handed down Uribe said the Supreme Court was politically biased and may even be influenced by Colombia's multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.

His combative strategy opens the possibility of a special election that could give him a new mandate and allow more public debate over whether he should be allowed to try to stay in power beyond 2010 when his current term ends.

"The referendum is on the way," presidential advisor Jose Obdulio Gaviria said as the opposition howled that Uribe is thumbing his nose at the judicial system and throwing off the constitutional checks and balances of the country.

The president's staff was busy on Monday drawing up the wording of the proposal. If it is approved by Congress the referendum will be put before the country's voters.

"If the court has doubts about my election, let's ask the people and see what they say," Uribe said after Thursday's Supreme Court decision.

Uribe, who has about 80 percent popularity based on his fight against leftist guerrillas fighting a four-decade-old insurgency, is portrayed this week on the cover of the Colombian news magazine Semana as a Roman emperor with the caption: "I am the power."

The president has regularly sparred with the courts over his peace negotiations with right-wing paramilitary militias, thousands of whom have demobilized under a deal offering them reduced jail terms for crimes including mass murder.

Uribe is an important U.S. ally in the left-tilting Andean region, where President Hugo Chavez of oil-rich Venezuela has voiced solidarity with Marxist Colombian rebels and often denounces U.S. "imperialism."

'BRINK OF BREAKDOWN'

"The face-off between Uribe and the court has brought the country to the brink of constitutional breakdown," said the usually pro-Uribe El Tiempo newspaper in a Sunday editorial.

The legal question is whether a referendum can be called to rerun an election that has not yet been officially invalidated. The Constitutional Court is weighing whether or not to review the 2006 vote to determine if it was legal.

Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, who is in charge of negotiating with Colombia's illegal militias and also a Uribe ally, called for an investigation of the Supreme Court after jailed paramilitary chief and drug lord Salvatore Mancuso said his organization had infiltrated the court.

Dozens of members of Uribe's congressional coalition, including his cousin and former Senator Mario Uribe, are under investigation on charges that they used far-right paramilitary thugs to intimidate voters.

Interior Minister Fabio Valencia told journalists that calling a special election "does not necessarily imply that the current presidential mandate will be extended."

But the opposition sees the referendum as a ploy that will allow Uribe to push for a mandate that could help keep him in office past 2010, when his current term expires.

"Uribe essentially carried out a coup d'etat with the illegal approval of the bill that allowed him to stand for re-election," said left-leaning Senator Gustavo Petro. "The referendum would deepen that coup."

The Supreme Court last week sentenced ex-Congress member Yidis Medina to nearly four years of house arrest for accepting illegal favors from government officials in exchange for supporting the re-election amendment in 2004 when she was a low-ranking member of Uribe's coalition.

Charges are expected to be filed against the officials she says induced her vote by promising she would be able to name her friends to local government commissions in her home province of Santander.

Reporting by Hugh Bronstein

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