A woman stands near a poster that in Spanish reads "No more Uribe. No to re-election", in a street of Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia, on September 17, 2009. Polls show Uribe would have a large lead over potential rivals should he decide to run again in this country of 44 million people. At the beginning of the month, Uribe cleared a major hurdle to serving a third term as lawmakers approved holding a referendum on whether he could run again, though the move must still be endorsed by the Constitutional Court before a referendum can be held. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images
With elections slated for May 30th, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s second term in office is fast drawing to a close. Elected in 2002, he has served the last eight years with distinction. Even the ever-reserved Economist summed up his two terms enthusiastically:
Mr. Uribe “has made his country a better and safer place. Through tireless and determined leadership and by expanding the security forces, backed by American aid, he has reduced the FARC guerrillas from a mortal threat to the democratic state to a scattered…band. He persuaded tens of thousands of right-wing paramilitaries to disband… Greater security has helped to bring a revival of economic growth and national self-confidence”
At the end of eight years of stellar leadership, however, Mr. Uribe is not ready to step aside. Despite Colombia’s term limits (which currently limit a leader to two stints as president), he is actively pushing a referendum to amend the constitution to allow him a go at a third term. Mr. Uribe already enjoyed a successful campaign for just such a measure in 2006. Four years on, judging from his wild popularity and last week’s endorsement by the country’s Inspector General Alejandro Ordonez, there is no reason to doubt a second triumph.
Why then is the very same publication that printed the glowing praise of the Colombian President now calling for his retirement?
It is easy to criticize the threats to democracy posed by men like Hugo Chavez and the Iranian Ayatollahs. For them, politics and policy are one and the same, and because of ideology their constituents suffer at the hands of ineptitude. It might seem rash to compare Chavez’s utter disregard for his country’s institutions with Mr. Uribe’s genuine concern for his people and their government, but the true test of a democracy is its capacity to transfer power peacefully. Colombia does not have a good track record when it comes to this essential function, and Mr. Uribe’s unwillingness to let go of the reins threatens to undo his good work.
The risks are many and serious and Mr. Uribe has good reason to want to stay. Take the case of Pakistan, where good leadership nearly prevented catastrophe. The strong willed leadership of Pervez Musharraf held the country peaceably (mostly) together (although loosely) for nearly a decade. Now, after finally relinquishing power in 2008, we may be watching a nuclear state fall to terrorists.
The same is unlikely to occur in Colombia, and the Pakistani comparison serves as hyperbole. It is true, though, that less than 10 years ago many observers were predicting the failure of the Colombian state.
Today, things are very different. The country is safer and richer. So much so, the Travel Channel even filmed an episode of a popular show there recently, granting Colombia the ultimate first world endorsement.
If and when Mr. Uribe is successful in securing a third term as Colombia’s president, most Colombians will sigh with relief. But if 2014 holds more of the same, it may be too late to save Colombia’s bright future.
-By Nathaniel Foote