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A third term for Uribe?

BOGOTA, Colombia — Is Colombian President Alvaro Uribe steamrolling toward a third term? Or running out of time?

Just before midnight Tuesday, the Colombian House of Representatives by an 85-5 margin approved a bill to hold a referendum that could pave the way for Uribe to stand in next year’s election.

The lopsided vote was due to a boycott by opposition legislators who claim that the process has been rife with irregularities ranging from vote-buying to illegal financing of the referendum drive.

Despite the rousing victory, a third four-year term for Uribe is hardly a lay-up. The law to hold the referendum must be OK’d by the Constitutional Court, a process that will likely take at least five months due to numerous legal challenges, according to Rafael Pardo, a presidential candidate for the opposition Liberal Party.

Pro-Uribe magistrates dominate the court and some analysts believe a decision will come by December. But even if they give their seal of approval, the National Registry will probably need another three months to organize the nationwide referendum.

After that, at least one-quarter of the electorate — about 7 million people — would then have to turn out to cast ballots. But it's difficult to get citizens to vote in referendums.

If enough ballots are cast, the “yes” votes would have to outnumber the “no” votes for the referendum to pass.

All of this is cutting it very close since the first round of the presidential election is scheduled for late May.

It could still happen. Uribe enjoys widespread popularity due to his national security policies that have driven back Marxist guerrillas and reduced homicides and kidnappings. Polls show him easily defeating any other candidate.

But Uribe’s strategy is also full of risks and could hurt his impressive legacy. Even admirers are starting to view the president as power-hungry with some calling him a right-wing version of Hugo Chavez.

Meanwhile, his shadow candidacy has kept other pro-Uribe presidential hopefuls — like former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos — on the sidelines. Thus, if the re-election drive is derailed, opposition candidates who have been campaigning all along will enjoy a big head start on the Uribistas.