The political future of Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s conservative president, was decided by nine constitutional judges last Friday. After months of speculation, they rejected unanimously the plan for a referendum to allow Uribe to run for a third consecutive term in office.
The landmark ruling, which was hailed as a sign of the country’s robust democracy, marks the end of an era in Colombian politics. Uribe’s eight-year rule has perhaps defined and shaped Colombia more than any other presidency in the past century.
There has certainly never been a more popular leader in Colombia’s history than Uribe. An austere Oxford and Harvard educated lawyer, Uribe’s popularity ratings have hovered above 60 per cent throughout his term in office. When first coming to power in 2002, Uribe won a landslide victory. He then got the constitution changed so he could run for a historic second term.
For his staunch supporters, it is hard to imagine Colombia without the paternal figure that Uribe has become. Over the last several days, the presidential palace has received 10,000 messages of support for Uribe.
“The country has to accept that Álvaro Uribe will no longer be in power and give new leaders an opportunity,” says Sergio Fajardo, one of several leading presidential hopefuls.
Uribe’s governing style brings him in close contact with el pueblo, the people, and this has allowed him to judge the public mood well. Every Saturday, Uribe hosts a marathon televised town hall meeting in a different part of the country. Here he takes questions from residents, micromanages local problems and tells off ministers for not having statistics at hand.
Uribe shares the same loathing for the leftist FARC rebels as most war weary Colombians do. He has survived several assassination attempts and experienced first hand guerrilla violence when his father was killed during a botched rebel kidnapping.
Uribe’s unapologetic hard-line stance against the FARC and his determination to crush the rebels is part of his widespread appeal. For many, he is credited for reviving the fortunes of a country that many felt was on the brink of being taken over by the guerrillas. Uribe’s overriding legacy is his so-called Democratic Security policy that has seen government troops beat back the guerrillas through a sustained US-backed military offensive and bring crime and kidnapping rates down. Before Uribe came along, some Colombians living in hinterland regions had only known life under guerrilla control.
Uribe deployed the armed forces to Colombia’s mountain regions and jungle outposts, heralding the arrival of government troops for the first time in decades. During public holidays, soldiers line the country’s main motorways at every two kilometers or so. All this has made many Colombians, both rich and poor, feel safer with Uribe at the helm.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Uribe’s administration is that he was able to remain popular, despite a barrage of scandals during his second term, which Spain’s El País newspaper recently described as “a house of horrors”. The worst scandal involves government soldiers who have allegedly murdered innocent civilians to inflate guerrilla body counts.
With Uribe out of the presidential race, there are several possible real contenders. The outcome could partly depend on which candidate Uribe officially endorses.
To stand a real chance of winning, presidential candidates will have to espouse Uribe’s tough stance against the FARC. They will also have to address Colombia’s long-standing social ills, notably the country’s rising unemployment rate, which at 14.6 per cent is one of the highest in Latin America.
Currently ahead in the polls is a former newspaper columnist and Colombia’s former defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, who is credited for a series of masterful defeats against the rebels. Whoever wins, though, Uribe is likely to remain a potent force in Colombian politics.
“Compatriots,” said Uribe recently. “I have the desire to be able to serve Colombia from whichever trench, from whatever circumstance, until the last day of my life.” Few Colombians doubt that.