Gracias and Good Night
Jul 3rd 2008
From The Economist print edition
Despite his coup in freeing Ingrid Betancourt, álvaro Uribe should not seek a third term
ONLY those blinded by ideology would deny that álvaro Uribe has made Colombia a better place. By expanding the security forces and leading them tirelessly, Mr Uribe, who was first elected president in 2002, has imposed the authority of the democratic state across most of a previously lawless country. He persuaded thousands of right-wing paramilitaries to disarm, and has inflicted probably mortal blows on the FARC guerrillas. The latest of these was the dramatic liberation this week of the FARC’s most-prized hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, a politician of Colombian and French nationality kidnapped six years ago, and three American defence contractors (see article). Murders have almost halved since 2002; kidnappings have fallen much more. A safer country is prospering economically, as confidence returns.
This record has won Mr Uribe his people’s gratitude (opinion polls give him an approval rating of 80%) and in 2006 a second term-after he persuaded Congress to lift a constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms, and the courts to ratify the change. But now this second term is unexpectedly in question. On June 26th the Supreme Court found that a former legislator cast a deciding committee vote for the re-election amendment only after two ministers had promised government jobs to some of her supporters. The justices have asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the constitutional change and thus of the 2006 election.
Mr Uribe’s reaction was characteristically combative. He asked Congress to call a referendum on the legitimacy of his term. He claims that the courts are pursuing a political vendetta. He has a point: reprehensible though it is, patronage politics is routine in Colombia and much of the democratic world. To deduce that in this case it invalidates the election is disproportionate-as the Constitutional Court may well conclude.
But the president’s referendum idea is equally cock-eyed. He seems determined to battle the courts, rather than respect them. Worse, although he has denied this, the referendum suggests to many a step towards prolonging his rule beyond 2010. He has allowed supporters to gather signatures for a (separate) referendum to change the constitution again to allow him a third term. This would give him time to finish off the FARC and complete his rescue of Colombia, supporters say.
He deserves a full second term-but no more
Tempting though such a prospect might seem, a third term would be disastrous for Colombia. Mr Uribe is not without flaws. Worryingly, given his feud with the judiciary, judges nominated by him will form a majority in the Constitutional Court by next year. His shoot-from-the-hip manner has made him many enemies abroad, including in America’s Democratic Party. He may be welcoming John McCain to Colombia this week, but it is Barack Obama who is ahead in the opinion polls and the Democrats control Congress (where they are disgracefully blocking a trade agreement with Colombia mainly because of their distaste for Mr Uribe). A different Colombian president might also carry out the agrarian reform-settling people displaced by violence on land confiscated from warlords-that Colombia needs and Mr Uribe eschews.
Most importantly, Colombia’s transformation will remain fragile as long as it is the work of one man. To be complete, it needs to be institutionalised. There are several plausible successors who would maintain Mr Uribe’s security policies. Rather than a plebiscitarian strongman, in the mould of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Colombia needs strengthened democratic institutions. The greatest service Mr Uribe could do his country is to depart in 2010.