POLITICS | 3/2/2010 12:00:00 AM
An unnecessary blemish
The President damaged his legacy trying to seek a third term.
In such circumstances the logical thing was that near to end his eight-year term reigned a collective feeling of gratitude. This is still going to happen, but not in the same dimension that would have been if the President had not sought to extend his office term. The country spent two years in a political and institutional limbo. The priority in the government's agenda was the reelection and the rest of matters became secondary. The tradition against ‘caudillos’ that had characterized Colombia as an exception in Latin America was about to be lost. And the image of the statesman who only thought about the welfare of his countrymen is blurred. Even worse, if he tried to prolong his stay in power not as a personal ambition but with conviction that he was the only that could avoid a holocaust, the conclusion would be that after two terms of government the President became possessed by messianic delusions.
President Uribe seems to be convinced that he never sought reelection but that it was simply a spontaneous mass outpouring of support that took place behind his back. This fantasy can not stand a rigorous analysis. If the argument to remain in power is the 70 percent of popularity, then Michelle Bachelet from Chile and Lula da Silva Lula from Brazil would have to be re-elected. Although they received proposals, none of them accepted to reform the Constitution for respect of the country institutions. Bachelet justified her decision using an expression as simple as convincing: it would not be "elegant". In other words, that it would not be good that the reform of the institutional order has its own name. And this kind of measures are associated with countries with less tradition of political stability like Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
In the United States, the birthplace of the presidential system, a curious thing happened in 1945. The number of possible re-elections was not constitutionally limited, but traditionally two terms were enough. During World War II this tradition was broken under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who invoked the national security argument to be elected, not two but four times, until he died in the third month of his fourth term. Thus, he ruled for almost over 12 years, and although everyone recognized him as the hero who had defeated Nazi Germany and Japanese imperialism, his continuance in power had such negative impacts, that the Constitution was reformed so that there would be no more than one re-election.
President Uribe's self-belief that he had nothing to do with the re-election referendum is automatically invalid because all the tricks that his men had to do in order to prevent it from sinking. At first, the version that Luis Guillermo Giraldo (promoter of the initiative) and his colleagues acted on their own, defies credibility. The referendum would not have taken off with a simple call of the President expressing to Giraldo his disinterest in the project.
But if the argument is that the President’s attitude doesn’t mean approval nor disapproval, it’s not possible to say the same of what happened later. Interior and Justice Minister, Fabio Valencia Cossio, assumed this project as a priority. He even convened a special session in the House of representatives, without fulfilling the formal requirements of the case, only to avoid a collapse. Besides, it was necessary a political juggling to ensure majorities in Congress to change the question badly done in the signature collection. And allowing congressmen to change their parties was another strategy included in the political reform to ensure a stronger reelection coalition.
Another thing that damaged the President’s image was that he never said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ during the whole process. For this man, that speaks with no fear and that is able to yell "be a man" to his fiercest opponent, these diplomatic evasions were not good. His theories on the “state of opinion” which were not satisfactorily clarified until the Court’s decision, temporarily questioned his commitment to democratic values, and exposed himself to be branded as autocrat or dictator.
All these considerations do not deny his government merits. But he could avoid an episode that only can be seen as a defeat, before his retirement. When the Constitutional Court President, Mauricio González, announced last Friday that the referendum was unenforceable, a loud applause interrupted his speech. Virtually, all the characters that appeared on the news that night understood as a success of democracy the Court’s decision. A cry of "finally" prevailed in the environment and lots of people said that Colombian institutions were safe. Swallow that bitter pill must be very hard for a man who is considered by many as the savior of the country.