Colombia's constitutional court dealt a death blow Friday to President Alvaro Uribe's hopes of running for a third term, ruling that a referendum proposed by his supporters to open the way for another candidacy would be illegal.
The highly anticipated ruling comes before a presidential election scheduled for May 30, opening the way to an exciting, compressed campaign with no clear front-runner.
Candidates include former Medellin Mayor Sergio Fajardo, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, Sen. Gustavo Petro and previous presidential candidate Noemi Sanin. Recent surveys have provided an unclear picture of their relative strengths because of Uribe's uncertain status.
At an event Friday in Barranquilla, Uribe said he would respect the ruling and urged that his successor keep the nation secure.
"I hope to serve Colombia from the trenches, under any circumstance, until the last day of my life," Uribe said.
In its ruling, the court said there were irregularities in the collection of hundreds of thousands of signatures to qualify a referendum that, if passed, would have given a green light to another Uribe candidacy. The special prosecutor's office and the National Election Council each are investigating the controversial drive that garnered millions of signatures.
Jaime Castro, a former Bogota mayor and constitutional law expert, said, "Definitively, the possibility of Uribe's reelection dies here."
The ruling will disappoint Uribe's legions of supporters who credit him with bringing Colombia back from the brink of failed statehood. When he took office in 2002, leftist guerrillas had surrounded Bogota, the capital, and shelled his inauguration with mortar rounds and missiles.
Helped by billions of dollars in U.S. military aid under Plan Colombia, Uribe rebuilt the nation's demoralized armed forces, which at the time were no match for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas, known as the FARC. Over his two terms, the armed forces gradually regained control of major cities and highways. Security overall has improved dramatically.
His popularity has remained high, rising after the 2008 killing of a top FARC commander in Ecuador and the rescue of three U.S. defense contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
Kraul and Gonzalez are special correspondents.