SEMANA/Politics | 9/23/2008 12:00:00 AM
Should I stay…or should I go?
Everything seems to indicate that Colombian president Alvaro Uribe may not be seeking immediate re-election. Leaving the door open is a political strategy.
Nobody talks about pretty much anything else in political and business sectors in Colombia today. No one knows for sure if Uribe indeed ended his aspiration to promote a constitutional reform which would allow his prolongation in power further into the future beyond August 7, 2010, or if his declaration was just another distraction to confuse his opponents.
The way in which he made the announcement brought about immediate doubts. Instead of a presidential address to 44 million Colombians, it came as an answer to a student of the Universidad del Cesa, a management school, in Bogotá. It wasn’t the only time that someone had asked that question. Until that night, Uribe had always answered ambiguously with phrases like “it is not good to perpetuate oneself in power” and that “we have to find new leaders.” His pronouncements were sufficiently bland that they would fit any interpretation, especially because the government refused to put a stop to the citizen initiative that collected signatures in favor of a referendum promoted by Luis Guillermo Giraldo, the general secretary of the U Party, the main pro-Uribe political party.
That Wednesday in front of the university students, Uribe went further; he withdrew his support of the referendum because, it was an “obstacle” to the approval of political and judicial reform that has been presented to the Colombian Congress. He said that, “for the future of the country it is much better to continue with the legislative agenda than get tangled up in a discussion about re-election. It is better to work so that the Colombian people continue adopting the policy of ‘democratic security,’ investor confidence and social cohesion, than simply occupy ourselves in perpetuating the president.” He added: “I believe that all that is much better for the future of the homeland than seeking my re-election now.”
He concluded with a sentence that seemed to put a clear end to any intentions to extend his current mandate beyond 2010. “Now, Congress can easily reform the article which was approved in 2006 and leave a contingency plan that a president can be immediately re-elected just once and, later, after an intervening period, could seek election again.” To sum up, he left open the possibility that he could be thinking now of the 2014-18 presidential term.
His words were so blunt that known “Uribistas” such as Mauricio Rodríguez, president of Cesa University, and Fabio Echeverri, a former presidential advisor, interpreted the announcement that the Colombian president would definitely not seek re-election.
In less than 24 hours however, the government backtracked once it heard the boisterous reaction of referendum promoters and of several members of Congress who reiterated their support for the popular initiative. At the Casa de Nariño (the Colombian presidential palace), the order was immediate: “Do not say anything more nor try to interpret the president’s words.” Nor was there any instruction to Uribe allies to vote against the referendum, just a deathly silence, that was interpreted on Friday evening in some sectors as support from the presidency to give a green light to the referendum, which seems to have the approval of the Legislature.
According to those close to the Presidential Palace, the reality is that Uribe has not yet decided, but that he would prefer not to run for re-election in 2010. By leaving the referendum option alive, albeit in an underhanded manner, the President keeps a door open and at the same time allows him to control his troops in Congress, keep potential candidates quiet and obedient until further orders, and enables him to gauge the electoral might of his possible successors.
Uribe is convinced that keeping alive the specter of his second re-election is fundamental for his ability to govern effectively. Without it, coalition members would act like sheep gone astray and the various pro-Uribe parties would not join together to select one sole candidate to succeed him. The president fears that such a division would boost the opposition, led by the Colombian left wing political party Polo Democrático Alternativo, who would win and would result in the collapse of his “democratic security,” policy. Considering these possible outcomes, he doesn’t want to sacrifice his strongest card: his candidacy.
The eventual approval of the referendum in 2009 will also allow him to reconsider his announcement last Wednesday, because, seven million votes, after all, is the voice of the people.
Nonetheless, although it may seem like a platitude, perhaps in this occasion Uribe’s words should be believed. Maybe when he says that he will not run again because of “the higher interests of the homeland,” he is being serious. The president, who is a great student of history, is aware that declarations of this nature are not made lightly, and even less a few days before his visit to the United Nations and to Washington. SEMANA has learned that precisely one of the issues that is on the agenda of Democratic and Republican leadership in the U.S. Congress is re-election. They want to know if Uribe is another Fujimori, a Chávez or rather a George Washington.