Riding in a taxi in the coastal Colombian city of Cartagena some months ago, I was chatting with a Colombian colleague about whether the country's president, Alvaro Uribe, should be allowed to run for an unprecedented third term. Abruptly, our taxi driver turned and interjected: "You don't know what it was like here before Uribe. Taxi drivers like me were attacked and assaulted all the time. Now we have security."
His passionate, spontaneous testimony reflects a common sentiment in a country that has witnessed a dramatic turnaround in its security situation and high economic growth under Uribe's take-charge leadership. Even his critics acknowledge the decrease in violence, including a 40% drop in homicides and an 80% drop in kidnappings between 2002 and 2007. The very real fear that the state would be overwhelmed by violent guerrilla and paramilitary groups has faded since Uribe took office in 2002.
But does this mean that the law should be changed so that Uribe can run again? Colombia is South America's second-most-populous country and its oldest democracy. The Constitution of 1991 prohibited presidents from seeking reelection, but it was changed in 2005 to allow Uribe's second consecutive term. Now, an additional amendment has been proposed to allow a third term. If Congress backs it, and if it survives legal challenges, the proposed amendment would go to a national referendum later this year. At least a quarter of the electorate, about 7.2 million people, would need to turn out, and a majority of those voters would have to approve it in order to clear the path for Uribe's candidacy in May 2010.
It is possible, of course, that Uribe could be frustrated in his ambitions despite the support he now enjoys. After all, the Colombian economy contracted in the fourth quarter of 2008 after years of strong growth, and the global economic crisis is fueling social unrest. But it is also possible that a politician of Uribe's skill could parlay this sense of anxiety into an argument for political continuity. Uribe, 56, is a former mayor of Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city, as well as a former governor and senator with the Liberal Party. His father, a wealthy cattle rancher, was killed by rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in a botched kidnapping attempt in 1983. Despite having served nearly two full terms as president, and having suffered some recent stumbles, his favorability ratings remain high, around 70%.
The effect of one-man rule on Colombian democracy, however, is deeply worrisome. Term limits were put in place as a way to keep the executive from overwhelming the legislative and judicial branches of government, part of a well-calibrated system of checks and balances. Another term for Uribe would allow him to pack the Constitutional Court and Central Bank. Colombians take pride in the fact that they have one of the continent's longest and most established democratic traditions, but Uribe's push threatens to mar this exemplary history.
Elsewhere in Latin America, where many people are nervous about their own presidents' appetites for power, Uribe's move is viewed with concern. Despite the impressive array of elected governments in the region these days, constraints on executive power are being weakened. The precedent set by Uribe's third term would reinforce this erosion and provide a ready justification to others with troubling authoritarian proclivities.
Last week's guilty verdict against former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori for gross human rights abuses is a reminder that his legally dubious campaign for a third consecutive term in 2000 ended in national trauma. Revelations of massive corruption and electoral fraud forced a disgraced Fujimori to fax in his resignation from exile in Japan.
They operate in distinct political contexts, of course, but comparisons between Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also have proved irresistible. In mid-February, Chavez won a referendum eliminating term limits, paving the path toward his stated ambition of staying in power for the next 40 years. Since then, Chavez has employed far-fetched legal charges to suppress dissent and quash potential challenges to his power. Both Chavez and Uribe make the convenient argument that "the people" should have the opportunity to vote for whomever they like, as many times as they like. But if this were merely a matter of principle, they could support lifting term limits once they leave office.
Washington and Bogota have enjoyed a close partnership over the last decade, but Uribe's reelection push is bound to complicate the country's relationship with the Obama administration and, especially, the Democratic-controlled Congress. They are already wary because of Uribe's close association with the Bush administration and accusations that he has been lenient toward violent paramilitaries. With this cloud over him, it will be even tougher to approve the pending trade pact with Colombia, which has been stalled because of human rights concerns and the ailing U.S. economy. And continued aid will be harder to secure and subject to ever-greater scrutiny.
Uribe has acknowledged that staying in power indefinitely is not ideal, but he argues that a new, untested leader will be unable to sustain his successful military campaign against the FARC insurgency. As he put it in February: "Perpetuating oneself in the presidency troubles me, but I cannot be politically irresponsible."
A recent national survey by the leading newsmagazine Semana indicates that Colombians largely agree; 44 % said they would vote for Uribe in 2010, and no other candidate polled higher than 6%.
But this is more a reflection of the shadow Uribe has cast over Colombian politics this decade than a dearth of qualified replacements. Indeed, thanks to the country's democratic tradition, a group of talented political figures is prepared to step up if Uribe steps down. If that is allowed to happen, Uribe's successor will have little choice but to maintain the thrust of Uribe's tough and popular security policies. Those policies are not at stake. Uribe's democratic legacy is another question.