If a U.S. president spent both terms with approval ratings hovering above 70 percent, what would happen during his eighth year? Would his party use its majority control of Congress and the states to undo the 22nd Amendment, allowing him to run again ... and again? Would he be allowed to serve until he had handpicked the entire Supreme Court and wielded virtually unchecked power -- all so long as his ratings were kept high?
For the last several years in the Andean country of Colombia, this question has not been hypothetical. President Álvaro Uribe, an archconservative first elected in 2002, has won unprecedented high marks for his can-do attitude, workaholic image, and perhaps most of all, a military strategy that pushed violent guerrilla groups out of most population centers after a decade-long defense buildup. Last fall, a national poll found that 46 percent of Colombians believed that nobody but Uribe was even capable of governing the country. And in Washington, arguably Bogotá's most important ally, Uribe is lauded as an unwavering partner in maintaining regional security, not least in the war on drugs. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's meeting with him in Uruguay earlier this week was probably one of the easiest she'll have on her Latin America trip.
Not too long ago, it looked like Uribe might be so popular that he would be allowed to stick around past his current mandate, set to end in August. Then at the eleventh hour, on Feb. 27, a third Uribe term was struck down by the country's Constitutional Court -- a blow to Uribe's supporters and, some worry, to the United States. It's easy to buy into the near personality cult of Uribe (his supporters adore him so much that they call themselves uribistas). But in losing its best ally in office, the United States might gain an even better democratic friend over the long haul.
Four years ago, a constitutional change allowed the Colombian president to be elected to a second term, and not surprisingly, Uribe was. Still not satiated, the president's partisans began a campaign in late 2008 for yet another amendment that would clear the way for a third term. (Uribe never said clearly whether he wanted to stay put, but he did nothing to stop the momentum either.) Last September, Colombia's Congress gave the green light for a referendum vote on the proposed constitutional amendment, and polls showed that the referendum was likely to pass. Uribe was also likely to win handily in the next election, set for May 30.
Before the constitutional plebiscite could be scheduled, however, an obstacle remained: The country's Constitutional Court had to certify that the referendum law was approved through a legal, legitimate process. On Feb. 26, the court determined that, in fact, several procedural requirements, ranging from the amount spent on a signature-gathering campaign to the timing of the congressional debate to the wording of the referendum question, had been blatantly ignored. The referendum was struck down, and Uribe, limited to two terms, will leave office in five months.