BOGOTA (Reuters) - His popularity soaring and once-powerful rebels at their weakest in years, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is considering an unprecedented third term and looks untouchable should he decide to run in 2010.
The conservative U.S. ally is credited by many with rescuing Colombia from chaos and his approval ratings stand at around 90 percent.
But convincing Congress and the courts to clear the constitutional reform needed for a re-election would be complicated and even talk of extending Uribe’s rule raises protests from some who say it would be a threat to democracy.
Uribe remains evasive. He says he wants new leaders, but he has not yet picked a successor. Most analysts believe he is trying to keep his enemies guessing and allow himself room to maneuver in his term’s remaining two years.
“The nation’s politics and even economic dynamism will revolve around this process, and depend in good measure on its outcome,” El Tiempo daily said in an editorial. “It is marked by the great unanswered question: Does Uribe want to or not?”
Uribe was re-elected in 2006 after one constitutional amendment. Now supporters have handed in five million signatures for a referendum on another reform to allow a third successive term.
The proposal must pass through four debates in Congress and a review by Colombia’s constitutional court before any referendum could be held, most likely in the second half of next year.
One source close to the presidency says Uribe is in “deep meditation” over what re-election would mean for Colombia’s democracy, how his security and investment policies can be maintained and which candidate might best guarantee them.
“I think he is keeping this close to his chest,” another source close to the government said. “Without that guarantee, he may have to go again himself.”
During his six years in office, Uribe’s popularity has grown as the country’s long conflict has ebbed.
The FARC rebel group has been beaten back after Uribe plowed billions of dollars in U.S. aid into sending troops to retake control of large areas of the country. Bombings and kidnappings have fallen, and investment has rocketed.
His popularity was already high and got another huge lift in July after the rescue of a group of rebel hostages, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. contract workers, held for years in jungle camps.
But critics worry that will translate into a re-election riding roughshod over institutions. Some see authoritarian tendencies in Uribe’s open clashes with the Supreme Court.
“A new Uribe re-election, independent of how you qualify his government ... puts Uribe up there with other Latin American autocrats,” Liberal party Sen. Juan Fernando Cristo said.
Even Wall Street and some in Colombia’s business community are wary of another Uribe term, but they still see that as better than an alternative who does not deliver his policies.
Should he seek another term, Uribe has a majority in the Congress to try to push the re-election proposal. But the legislature is mired in a scandal linking around 60 lawmakers — many government allies — to paramilitary death squads accused of atrocities before they disarmed in a peace deal.
The Conservative and Radical Change parties now allied to Uribe may also push for their own presidential candidates, and the opposition Liberal and Democratic Pole parties are in fledgling talks over an alliance to face Uribe, lawmakers say.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about what will happen with the process in Congress,” said Sen. Marta Lucia Ramirez, a member of Uribe’s party who opposes an immediate third term, but would back him if he went again in 2014.
Should Uribe step aside for 2010, the field remains wide open with no one candidate establishing a lead so far.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos is the most often touted candidate because of his ties to success against the rebels. But that has not translated into a strong popularity.
Jorge Londono, a pollster with Invamer Gallup, said Santos, former Bogota mayor Luis Eduardo Garzon and former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo are the most plausible - for now.
But ex-hostage Betancourt could be an election wild card. On her release the former presidential candidate said Uribe should be allowed to run, but she also pondered a bid.
“If it means serving Colombia and that is the way, why not?” she told Reuters in Paris where she was recovering from captivity. “But I don’t want that to become an obsession.”
Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Kieran Murray