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Colombia's folksy president

Constitutional amendment could allow popular Uribe to stay on for third term.

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe arrives for a meeting with natives from different ethnic groups in Piendamo, near Cali, Nov. 2, 2008. (Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters)

PEREIRA, Colombia — Rolling up his sleeves and reveling in the minutiae of coffee prices and road-paving projects, Alvaro Uribe seemed more like an alderman than Colombia’s president.

At a town hall meeting held in a high school gymnasium in Pereira, a provincial capital in the Andes Mountains, Uribe spent six hours trading stories, telling jokes and fielding requests for ambulances and clinics. He even delved into an obscure debate over where to build a sugar mill.

Uribe, a U.S-backed conservative, has held 234 town hall meetings since he was first elected in 2002. Broadcast on state television, the marathon sessions have helped burnish the president’s image as a hands-on leader.

But it’s more than Uribe’s regular-guy routine that makes him popular. His U.S.-funded army has delivered a series of blows to Marxist guerrillas, drug traffickers and kidnappers. Until the global recession kicked in, the improved security had sparked six straight years of economic growth.

Uribe’s triumphs have bred demands that he stay on the job for another four years, an outcome that seems increasingly likely.

By a lopsided 62-5 vote, the Colombian Senate last week approved a bill paving the way for a referendum to amend the constitution and allow Uribe to run for an unprecedented third term in the May 2010 election.

For his supporters, another four-year term for Uribe seems like a just reward. His successes on the battlefield and on the economic front have turned him into Colombia’s most popular leader in decades.

He also stands as Washington’s most loyal ally in Latin America and his administration has received more than $5 billion in mostly military aid from the United States.

After seven years in office, Uribe’s job-approval rating stands at 68 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll. And if Uribe is given the chance to run for a third term, several opinion surveys show him handily defeating any other candidate.

But like many South American nations with painful histories of abusive autocrats and military dictators, Colombia had long tried to limit presidential power. The 1991 constitution banned re-election.

More recently, however, a new crop of seemingly successful democratically elected leaders in the region have convinced lawmakers to change the rules to allow presidential re-election.

Argentina’s Carlos Menem, Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa have all been elected to multiple terms.

Uribe was allowed to run for a second term in 2006 after lawmakers amended the constitution in a controversial move that led to accusations of vote-buying.

But critics contend that another four years in office would stain Uribe’s impressive legacy. They are already painting him as a conservative counterpart to the left-wing Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and has vowed to rule until 2021.

Others see parallels with Fujimori, who defeated his country’s Shining Path guerrillas and used his popularity to gain a third presidential term in 2000. But Fijimori quickly fell from grace and was forced to resign. Last month, a Peruvian court convicted him of mass murder and kidnapping and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.