If Colombian president Alvaro Uribe ultimately decides not to run for a third term, the question of succession within the set of pro-Uribe parties arises. Over a year ago, there surfaced the idea of a consulta (the Spanish term normally translated as ‘primary’) to select a single uribista candidate.
The idea has resurfaced, mentioned by Juan Manuel Santos, the man who until recently was Uribe’s Defense Minister, and who would be a likely successor to Uribe from within the president’s own party, known as La U–technically for Unidad, but obviously really signifying the president’s initial. (Santos legally had to resign to preserve his eligibility for next year’s presidential election.)
Colombia uses a two-round majority system to elect the president, so candidates of various parties, including the several that have backed Uribe, could present separate candidates in the first round, and then combine in the runoff. However, there are some risks in doing so, including that they could split the vote and fail to get any candidate into the runoff (extremely unlikely given their current high popularity, but the French 2002 experience offers a caution) or that they could wind up with a divisive runoff featuring two of their candidates (which is quite a realistic possibility).
Steven Taylor quotes from and discusses the interview, in which Santos suggests the uribista parties would select their single candidate in a consulta among the members of congress of the various parties (the most important of which are La U, Radical Change, and what remains of the traditional Conservative party).
Such an elite-driven pre-selection could be hard to enforce, given the temptation of any party that suspects its candidate to be more popular with voters than with legislators to defect and run in the first round of the popular election. In fact, Steven also notes that Radical Change is flirting with the possibility of joining the opposition Liberal party (from which most of its leaders defected to back Uribe’s first campaign in 2002).
It is worth noting that Colombian electoral law permits parties to hold a popular primary, which would be concurrent with the congressional elections (about two months before the first round of the presidential election). However, I do not think the law permits two or more parties to hold a joint primary to select a single candidate for a pre-electoral alliance, though these parties would have the votes to make such a change, if they wanted to do so.
In any event, the above shows the posturing of the various uribista successors, and implies that the question of whether Uribe will indeed run for a third term may not yet be settled. A constitutional amendment to allow the president to run again has cleared several of its key legal hurdles and is likely to be submitted to a referendum (which would almost certainly approve it). In the meantime, La U the man remains cagey about his intentions.
A small personal note: Back in 1989 I met and interviewed Santos twice (once at a conference near Washington, DC, and once in his then-office at El Tiempo in Bogota). I most certainly had the impression I was meeting a future leader of his country. The broader point is that the Colombian political system has numerous qualified leaders, and there really is no objective reason to believe that only Uribe can provide continuity to the very considerable successes his own presidency has achieved. The pressing question for Colombian institutions is whether they are strong enough to resist the temptation to cast their lot yet again with the emerging jefe maximo.