Greg Weeks follows up on some recent discussion of a potential third term for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Greg cites a recent statement by Luis Carlos Villegas, the head of an important industrial group. Vilegas recently said that, while he believes Uribe is the best president Colombia has ever had, his staying in power would be “dangerous” for the country.
Greg asks whether Uribe, who is at approximately the halfway point of his second consecutive four-year term, will listen.
My thoughts, based on my own observations of Colombian politics, follow.
It is not as though it is only his choice. He has not one, but several parties in his coalition, which is thus loaded with ambitious politicians who have a national profile.1 They can be certain to make life difficult for him if he pushes for a third term. And, as Greg’s post makes clear, there are important allies outside of congress and the parties who are ready to urge him against pursuing another term.
Uribe would need a constitutional amendment, and I do not think he could get it through congress and the constitutional court (as he did, rather easily, for the previous change to allow two consecutive terms).
So, how would he get it? Call a para-constitutional referendum (he has no such clear authority)? That would be a coup, in effect, and I do not believe he would have sufficient support in any institution to pull that off.2 He may have the public support, but I suspect it would fall apart as soon as the inevitable clash of institutions began. I also suspect he knows that, cares about his legacy as “the best president Colombia has ever had,” and will not push the matter too hard (or have surrogates push it too hard).
Maybe I am overstating the institutionalization of Colombian democracy. But I do not think so.
- Aided greatly by the single national senate district in use since the current constitution of 1991 came into effect. That is, some of these ambitious politicians have run national campaigns in several recent cycles. Others are governors, as was Uribe before winning the presidency in 2002. [↩]
- Previous cases of presidents in Latin America who have obtained major constitutional change over the heads of congress–ChÃ¡vez, Fujimori and Menem, as well as the Barco and Gaviria administrations in Colombia in 1990-91 (where immediate reelection of an incumbent was not an issue)–have actually had crucial support in either the courts or the military, if not in congress. Moreover, all of those cases were considerably less institutionalized than Colombia is today, or so I would be inclined to argue. As I have stated before, Uribe’s successful quest for a constitutional change allowing a second term has much more in common with Brazil under Cardoso than with the other examples cited here. His potential quest for a third term would look more like Menem’s, which evaporated in the absence of institutional support and turned out to be a huge embarrassment for him. I do not think Uribe would get even as far as Menem did, let alone as far as Fujimori did. It should be remembered, that despite far lower institutionalization (it could be argued) in Peru, Fujimori could not pull it off. Uribe may be more popular now and in 2010 than Fujimori was at the turn of the century, but that would be balanced by the greater institutionalization of Colombian democracy and the greater diversity of the president’s supporting coalition. [↩]