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Colombia's Uribe hits snag in re-election effort

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The surprise failure this week of a bill in Colombia’s Congress aimed at allowing President Alvaro Uribe a third term revealed fractures in his coalition that could doom his chances of being re-elected.

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe (C), accompanied by Colombia's Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos (L) and Chief Army Commander Freddy Padilla, speaks during a news conference in Bogota October 29, 2008. REUTERS/Miguel Angel Solano /Presidency of Colombia/Handout

The measure, voted down on Wednesday, would have allowed the popular Uribe to run for office again in 2014, after sitting out four years from 2010 when his current term ends.

Until its defeat, the bill was seen as an easy political maneuver by the president to preserve his already vast influence over a country beset by 44 years of guerrilla war.

He could still clinch a referendum vote to allow him to run in 2010, but lawmakers say Wednesday’s legislative defeat shows Uribe may not have the support he needs to secure another presidential bid.

“The chances of re-election are now slimmer than they were a week ago,” said lower House member Santiago Castro from the Conservative party, which is in Uribe’s coalition but has begun to resist the re-election effort.

Coalition party Cambio Radical is also breaking ranks.

“Cambio Radical has shown its cards and is now clearly against re-election,” Castro said. “And the Conservative party is toying with the idea of having its own candidate in 2010.”

But the combative Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched rebel kidnapping in 1983, is keenly aware that no other politician in the country rivals him in terms of electability.

Uribe, whose supporters in Congress amended the constitution to allow him a second run for office in 2006, is the White House’s main ally in South America.

Local lawmakers are now reviewing a proposed referendum on rewriting the constitution again to allow Uribe’s reelection in 2010, and it could go before voters next year.

But many of his backers in Washington and on Wall Street shy from supporting the idea of another change in law aimed at keeping him in power. Critics say a third Uribe term would hollow-out democratic institutions and put too much power in the president’s hands.

Known for his messianic style, Uribe is the only Colombian president in memory to have taken a hands-on approach to security, ordering the army to attack leftist rebels, push them off the highways they once controlled and out of cities.

The results have attracted record investment and kept Uribe’s popularity above 70 percent despite a series of scandals in which security forces have committed human rights abuses and scores of Congress members, most from his coalition, are accused of having links to right-wing death squads.


Lower House member Constantino Rodriguez, of coalition member party Alas Equipo Colombia, said some Uribe supporters are slowing re-election legislation in order to promote their own party candidates or demand pork barrel spending projects.

He called the effort “Plan Tortuga” or the “Tortoise Plan.

Given Uribe’s popularity, analysts say any candidate to win in 2010 would have to adhere to his market-friendly economic policies and hard stance against the insurgency.

But left-leaning opponents are smelling blood after Uribe’s legislative defeat this week and after the U.S. embassy said this month that U.S. aid might be curtailed due to the international financial crisis.

“Uribe’s era is coming to an end,” said Gustavo Petro, a Senator from the opposition Polo Democratico party.

“His political model is showing its weak side, in terms of lack of respect for human rights, and his economic model, based on dependence on the United States, is also coming to a close,” Petro told Reuters.

Uribe fired 27 army officers on Wednesday after a probe implicated them in the deaths of more than a dozen young men who disappeared from their homes and were later found dead.

Rights groups see an increasing trend of officers trying to artificially improve their statistics by ordering the deaths of civilians and counting them as killed in combat.

Editing by Philip Barbara