BOGOTA (Reuters) - A court blocked Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Friday from running for re-election, making his former defense minister the favorite to succeed the Washington ally in a May presidential election.
The constitutional court ruling marked the start of a tough race to replace Uribe, who during his eight years in power became the country’s most popular president for his U.S.-backed war on leftist rebels and cocaine traffickers.
Juan Manuel Santos, a former Cabinet minister closely associated with Uribe’s security success against Latin America’s oldest insurgency, leads in opinion polls. After the ruling, he confirmed his intention to run for the presidency.
With Colombians waiting for word on their political future, the court voted 7-2 to reject a referendum on Uribe’s re-election bid. It cited irregularities ranging from the referendum’s financing to its rocky passage through Congress.
“I accept and I respect the decision of the constitutional court,” Uribe said after the ruling. “One dream inspires me: that the country betters its path, but does not change it.”
Under the conservative leader, the FARC or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has been weakened, and foreign investment has flowed steadily into Colombia, an Andean country once a byword for a failed state mired in drug violence.
Many Colombians, even his foes, praised Uribe, the 57-year-old son of wealthy landowners, as a man who managed to steer the country onto the right track. But the re-election question dominated the political agenda for more than a year as Uribe remained evasive on whether he would run.
Any candidate to succeed Uribe is unlikely to shift far from his security policies, although most of the aspirants say they will seek to focus more on social development in the top coffee exporter and Latin America’s No. 4 oil producer.
“Uribe’s sidelining from the presidential race is unequivocally positive in our view, opening the door to a deep bench of candidates who are broadly in favor of policy continuity,” said analyst Patrick Esteruelas at Eurasia Group.
Uribe, whose father was killed by FARC rebels in a botched kidnapping, won the presidency in 2002 promising to smash the guerrillas. Violence, kidnapping and bombings have eased and major cities are now much safer than eight years ago.
Colombia has became Washington’s staunchest ally in the region, where leftist leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador preach anti-U.S. rhetoric. Last year, he signed a deal allowing U.S. troops more access to Colombian bases.
The new president will have to manage delicate relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has clashed with Uribe repeatedly over U.S. military cooperation he sees as a threat to his OPEC nation.
Uribe’s successor must also tackle soaring unemployment, a recovering economy and a lack of state presence in rural areas while consolidating security gains outside major cities.
FARC rebels are still fighting in remote areas, ambushing troops and laying improvised land mines. New militia gangs engaged in drug smuggling are an increasing worry and the country remains the world’s No. 1 exporter of cocaine.
Santos, who also served as finance minister and planned some of Uribe’s major successes against the FARC, led with 18 percent support in a recent poll discounting Uribe.
“I want to reaffirm that I aspire to be a candidate for the presidency,” Santos said in a statement. “What we need to do now is work to ensure his (Uribe’s) legacy of security and progress is not lost.”
Sergio Fajardo, an independent praised for his performance as Medellin major, received 12 percent, while another former defense minister, Noemi Sanin, took 11 percent in the poll.
The political transition could unnerve the local peso currency and benchmark TES debt markets in the short term, but most analysts see long-term continuity in policy.
Colombians will vote next month in legislative elections likely to be a benchmark of support for Uribe’s political coalition. But the elections could risk splintering the alliance if parties squabble over presidential candidates.
Already Uribe’s U Party and the Conservative Party — two heavyweights in the president’s coalition — have clashed over whether they should present a unified candidate.
Uribe was re-elected once before in 2006 after his supporters pushed through a constitutional amendment to lift restrictions on incumbents running for a second term.
But the move to change the law again for Uribe fueled worries over the threat to Colombia’s democracy. His second term was marred by scandals over rights abuses by troops and illegal wiretapping of his opponents by the state spy agency.
His popularity has hovered above 60 percent during his nearly eight years in office. But the government’s handling of an overhaul of the health service this month appeared to cost him politically after the measures triggered protests.
“It was time to put a stop to Uribe,” said car parts salesman Roberto Villegas. “He began to think he was a god.”
Additional reporting by Javier Mozzo and Nelson Bocanegra, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney