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World News

Colombia's Uribe: Should I stay or should I go?

BOGOTA (Reuters) - For nearly two terms, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has been the firm hand his country wanted, taking on leftist guerrillas, locking up hundreds of drug traffickers and attracting more foreign investment.

But on one question even he admits he is wavering: Should he stay or should he go?

Uribe left Colombians scratching their heads on whether he plans to run for re-election next year after he said a third term would be inconvenient, but just an hour later acknowledged he was at a crossroads.

“I have a responsibility with Colombians. When I take in the balance of everything, I find myself at what I call a crossroads of the soul, how difficult,” the president said on Thursday night.

Uribe is still riding high on the success of his U.S.-backed war on guerrillas and many Colombians still praise him for making the country safer. But a campaign by allies to change the constitution and allow the popular conservative to seek re-election is raising fears about Colombia’s democracy.

Washington, which provides military aid to Uribe, reacted cautiously on Thursday, saying Colombians have the right to decide. But the idea of re-election is drawing comparisons to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce U.S. critic who also stayed in office after the constitutional was amended.

Uribe’s remarks came just days after the Colombian Senate approved a proposed referendum on re-election, edging him closer to a possible run. A special legislative commission and the constitutional court must still approve the proposal before a ballot can be held this year.

With political parties jockeying for position before next year’s election, Uribe may guard his plans to keep his foes off balance and his own alliance united. But a long wait could undermine potential candidates running under his banner.

Another Uribe term could worry the governing Democrats in the United States, who are already calling for more conditions on Colombia’s multimillion-dollar aid package and a proposed free trade deal after scandals over human rights abuses by state forces.

“If he commits either way, too early or too late, there are associated costs,” said Patrick Esteruelas at Eurasia Group risk consultancy in New York.

YES, NO, ... MAYBE?

Since the idea of a possible third term was floated, Uribe has kept Colombians guessing about whether he wants another four years in power after two terms leading his hard-line campaign against Latin America’s oldest insurgency.

He suggests keeping a president in power is not good and says the country has enough good leaders. But he frets over how his security policies can be maintained and once said he might run in case of a catastrophe, which he did not define.

His ambiguity has even government officials guessing.

“My intuition is that he is going to carry on, yes. But I repeat, I have not one piece of information, and I have not spoken with him,” Vice President Francisco Santos told a local news program in an interview on Thursday.

By law, the president must announce his candidacy by the end of November -- six months before the election. But Uribe’s allies may look for a way to fudge the requirement because he was re-elected in 2006 by changing the constitution once.

Already alternatives, including some allies, are lining up for a possible run at the presidency. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos resigned this week to seek the presidency -- but only if his former boss does not run.

“The president will take a decision at the right time,” the defense minister said this week. “My intuition tells me that he is not going to go for it. But he has never said that to me.”

Editing by Mohammad Zargham

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