Colombia’s Perilous Success

Recent months have been very good for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. His “Democratic Security” policy now seems to have definitively turned the tables in the country’s fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which have seen their leaders killed and their hostages freed. Uribe has also proven to be a strong economic administrator, attracting increasing flows of foreign direct investment to Colombia. But success presents Uribe with a new set of challenges that risk undoing most of his achievements.

The first and most tangible challenge is that Uribe – with popularity ratings of more than 90% following the rescue of 15 high-profile hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, in early July – will be more tempted to run for a third term. This would not be catastrophic per se, but amending the constitution again to favor one of the players would undermine the country’s relatively deep political institutionalization – one of the factors that has helped attract foreign investors. Changing the rules of the game to prop up personal rule would help perpetuate weaknesses such as a lack of accountability, and prevent important government policies from becoming entrenched as state policies.

One can only hope that Uribe has learned the lessons of doomed third-term experiments in the region – Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Argentina’s Carlos Menem spring to mind – and leave the presidency on a high note. If he does, he will probably be remembered as one of Colombia’s most successful and influential presidents, and can look forward to a continuing career as a regional and international statesman.

Perhaps more importantly, were Uribe to step down after his current term, he would still wield considerable proxy power at home, playing an integral role in choosing his successor – whoever he backs stands a very good chance of winning – and boosting his political supporters’ prospects in legislative elections.