By FRANK BAJAK
2009-05-13 02:00 AM
"Another question, amigo," Uribe said as he brusquely a BBC reporter during a recent interview in Europe.
Uribe's unwillingness to clarify the question has preoccupied Colombia for months. He's leaving it up to voters instead.
On Wednesday, Colombia's congress is expected to schedule a referendum on whether Uribe can run again. Colombians underwent a similar exercise that allowed Uribe's 2006 re-election.
This time, however, the 56-year-old rancher faces tougher odds.
The U.S.-backed president's poll ratings remain high. He is credited with sharp declines in Colombia's murder and kidnapping rates and with ridding its highways of guerrilla roadblocks. But his "Teflon presidency" has suffered more than a few nicks and scratches in recent months:
_ A scandal over the killings of more than 1,600 civilians by security forces who in most cases claimed the slain men were leftist rebels felled in combat. The United Nations called the killings, the vast majority during Uribe's tenure, "widespread and systematic."
_ The November collapse of pyramid schemes that had been ignored by Uribe's regulators. Mostly lower-class Colombians were fleeced out of more than a half billion dollars.
_ Revelations that politicians, judges and journalists were spied upon by the DAS domestic security agency, which reports directly to the president. Thirty-three DAS employees have been fired since the scandal broke in February.
_ And, most recently, the revelation that Uribe's two 20-something sons invested in land whose value skyrocketed when the government designated the properties part of a tax-free industrial zone.
Uribe, whose father was killed by rebels in a botched 1983 kidnapping, has a stock answer to the re-election question: he is less important than the survival of his "Democratic Security" policy, which has marshaled U.S. support to decrease crime, attract investment and reclaim large swaths of the cocaine-producing Andean country from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
One potential candidate who could be expected to continue the policy is Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who is widely believed to have designs on the presidency. By law, he must resign by the end of May if he wants to pursue the job.
But polls show there is no clear favorite if Uribe does not run. There is no indication any viable candidate would abandon the war on the FARC.
Uribe's approval rating reached 85 percent at its apex 10 months ago in the afterglow of the stunning rescue of three U.S. military contractors and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt from the FARC.
It is still a healthy 68 percent, according to a Gallup telephone poll this month of 1,000 people in four cities with an error margin of 3 percentage points.
But support may have faded more among Colombia's business and political elite, including heavyweights who unwaveringly backed Uribe's first re-election. Many have publicly urged Uribe to step out of the limelight, legacy intact, when his current term ends in August 2010.
"All the intellectuals and practically all the opinion makers are against. And many business leaders who were previously 'furibistas' (ardent Uribe backers) are now lukewarm," the newsmagazine Semana says in a cover story entitled "No to Re-Election."
Uribe's first justice minister, Fernando Londono, considers him "the best president Colombia has had in all its history," but he too says eight years is enough. He fears Uribe could end up discredited, and lumped together with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia, leftist presidents who also amended constitutions to extend their rule.
"To have changed the constitution once for one's own benefit isn't good," Uribe's predecessor, one-term president Andres Pastrana, told The Associated Press. "Doing it a second time is more inappropriate than the first."
Pastrana said Uribe has already upset the constitutional balance by concentrating too much power in the executive.
A referendum win is by no means certain for Uribe.
After congressional approval, the plebiscite must be ratified by Colombia's Constitutional Court. That could take three months.
A full 25 percent of Colombia's registered voters would then have to vote to amend the constitution to allow re-election. That's 7.2 million votes. Uribe got 7.5 million in his 2006 re-election.
The Obama administration has not taken a public position on a possible Uribe re-election.
But Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank believes a third term would seriously complicate Colombia's agenda with the U.S.: "It is hard to find anyone in Washington, even ardent Uribe supporters, who think that a third term is a good idea and would not be costly for Colombia."
Associated Press Writer Libardo Cardona contributed to this report.