BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia's conservative President Alvaro Uribe never had much in common with leftist President Hugo Chavez of neighboring Venezuela ... until now.
Late Tuesday, Mr. Uribe came one step closer to staying in power for another four years after lawmakers passed a measure calling for a referendum on whether to allow him to run for a third term.
Uribe still hasn't said publicly whether he will run if given the chance, but to Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, "It's clear he's made up his mind," since he has done nothing to stop the referendum campaign that would let him run again in 2010.
If Uribe - a staunch United States ally - does seek a third term, he will be taking a page out of the book of Mr. Chavez, and a slew other of Latin American leftist leaders, whose moves in recent years to extend their hold on power have raised concerns about eroding democratic institutions.
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For the past decade, leaders across the continent have reversed strict constitutional limits that allowed presidents to sit for only one term. Those restrictions were put in place to prevent leaders from holding on to power for too long.
In Colombia, Congress amended the Constitution to allow Uribe a second term in 2006.
But in Venezuela, Chavez took it a step further, successfully ending term limits on the presidency in a referendum in February.
FOLLOWING IN CHAVEZ'S FOOTSTEPS
Despite hand-wringing in Latin America and Washington over what critics said would be giving Chavez carte blanche to run ramshod over Venezuela's democracy, there were no real repercussions when the referendum passed.
"It didn't really cause a tremendous backlash," says Mr. Shifter. "Uribe probably had his eye on that."
At the same time, the fact that Chavez could be around indefinitely gives Uribe more reason to want to stick around himself, Shifter says. "That's yet another reason why Uribe thinks he can't take the risk of leaving power."
But others in Latin America have their eye on Colombia to see what happens with Uribe, which Shifter says could have "regional implications."
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is even more popular than Uribe with an approval rating of about 80 percent, has said he will not try to seek a third term when his ends in December 2010, but that hasn't stopped some of his supporters from launching a campaign to allow him to.
"A lot of people in other countries are watching what going to happen in Colombia," says Shifter.
A POPULAR LEADER
There is little question Colombians would vote to give Uribe the chance to run again. Uribe is credited with routing leftist rebels, demobilizing paramilitaries, and turning Colombia's economy around. A poll by the Invamer-Gallup firm released May 8 showed that 84 percent of those who said they would cast a ballot in a referendum said they would vote "yes" to give Uribe right to run. Even after nearly seven years in office, 71 percent of Colombians approve of his leadership.
CRITICS DECRY THE IDEA OF A THIRD TERM
But some Colombians are wondering not so much whether or not he will be given the legal means to run for a third term but whether he should even entertain the idea.
"No to re-election," the highly respected and influential newsmagazine Semana declared in a front-cover editorial earlier this month, warning that a third Uribe term would have "serious institutional repercussions."
Even some of Uribe's supporters are concerned that a bid for a third term could erode Colombia's democratic institutions. Fabio Echeverri, who ran Uribe's two successful election campaigns in 2002 and 2006 and was one of the president's top advisers, told the magazine a third term would "not be convenient for the country nor for Uribe."
Fernando Londono, Uribe's first Interior Minister said: "Another reelection would put him on the same level as Chavez and as 1/8Ecuador's leftist President Rafael3/8 Correa," whom he called "second-rate dictators."
Uribe has said he is only interested in seeing continuity for his security policies, but he has also hinted that he is the best one to do it.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who orchestrated some of the most devastating blows to leftist rebels, has made no secret of his desire to run for president. He announced his resignation on Monday but made it clear he was only an option is Uribe is not. "If the president decides not to run for a new reelection, then I will be a candidate," he said.
Meanwhile, until Uribe publicly declares his intentions, Colombian politics are in limbo, says Shifter. "Everything is kind of on hold," he says. "And I'm not sure that's very healthy."
(Brodzinsky is a Monitor special correspondent)