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Colombia's folksy president

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

The Uribe administration is already showing troubling signs of decay.

The DAS, Colombia’s version of the FBI, stands accused of spying on political opponents and passing the information to Uribe’s top aides.

Dozens of pro-Uribe lawmakers have been imprisoned or forced to resign for collaborating with right-wing death squads. As a result, nearly one-third of the senators voting in favor of the referendum on Tuesday were unelected alternates standing in for their disgraced colleagues.

The president’s two sons, in turn, have come under fire for allegedly using government connections to close a lucrative land deal. Even the army has been shaken by accusations that soldiers killed as many as 1,600 civilians and dressed them up as guerrillas to run-up the bodycount and earn cash bonuses.

“Uribe already has too much power. He controls the legislature. He has growing influence on the judiciary,” said Daniel Coronell, a columnist and TV journalist. “A third term for Uribe would be dangerous for Colombian democracy.”

Several roadblocks remain on Uribe’s path to a third term.

Colombia’s House and Senate must reconcile different versions of the re-election bill which then must pass muster by the Constitutional Court. The issue would then be put before the voters near the end of the year.

At least one-quarter of the electorate — about 7 million voters — would need to cast ballots for the result to be valid. If the “yes” votes on amending the Constitution outnumber the “no” votes by any margin, the referendum would pass.

Uribe himself has been strangely silent about his plans. While allowing his supporters to push ahead with the referendum drive, Uribe has refused to clarify whether he will seek a third term.

Some analysts believe that he is being intentionally vague to avoid becoming a lame-duck leader. But his dithering has paralyzed the campaigns of several pro-government candidates who would like to succeed Uribe.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos announced last week that he will step down at the end of the month for a possible presidential run. But polls show that in a contest against Uribe, Santos would lose. Thus, he said he would only run if Uribe stands aside.

“If the president is a candidate he can count on my total support,” Santos said.

If elected, Santos and several other presidential candidates have pledged to continue with Uribe’s national security policies. But at the town hall meeting in Pereira, several members of the audience said they would prefer to stick with Uribe himself.

Fernando Castro, a medical doctor, said he feared that without Uribe the guerrillas would return to terrorize the countryside. In 1991, Castro was injured in a botched kidnapping attempt by Marxist rebels. The attack left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair.

“What happened to me happened to many Colombians,” Castro said. “But Uribe has taken on the narcos and the bandits and we’ve been able to return to our land. If you ask me who I’m voting for, I will tell you: Uribe, of course!”

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