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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Ecuador president demands lawmakers accept firing

By Alonso Soto

QUITO (Reuters), Fri March 9, 2007 - Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa ordered 57 lawmakers on Friday to accept a court ruling that fired them, intensifying a power struggle with Congress in the politically unstable Andean country.

Ecuador's electoral court ruled this week that the 57 must step down for trying to oust the court's president in legal wrangling over proposed changes to the constitution that could weaken Congress.

The popular leftist president stepped into the fight with a speech from a balcony of the presidential palace to student supporters, who like many Ecuadoreans back his efforts to use reforms to cut the power of traditional political elites.

"Those 57 lawmakers should comply with the law for their actions and they should be replaced by their substitutes. That is the way it should be," Correa told the cheering crowd.

If the lawmakers step down, they will be replaced by members of their own parties, ensuring Congress remains an opposition body.

But the removal of more than half of the elected legislature would strip power from influential Correa opponents in a Congress which has been pivotal in ousting three presidents in the last decade.

Despite lacking support from a traditional party, Correa won power last November with a pledge to rewrite the constitution to strip Congress of much of its power.

He is a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose supporters rewrote the constitution to boost his powers soon after he was first elected.

Congress has at times accepted Correa's moves against it. But in recent weeks lawmakers have increased their opposition to a referendum on the constitution scheduled for April 15.

Congress suspended its session on Thursday after police surrounded it to enforce the court ruling.

The feud highlights the charismatic Correa's troubles governing a nation which has had eight presidents in a decade.

Still, the U.S.-educated economist is highly popular as many blame lawmakers for chronic instability in the world's top banana exporter and South America's No. 5 oil producer.


Congress had approved Correa's plan for a referendum, but opposition legislators say he then changed its text and they now want the vote halted.

They voted this week to fire the election court's president in a move to delay the referendum and secure an opposition majority in the court.

The electoral body hit back, ruling congressmen broke the law and would lose their political rights for a year.

The proposed constitutional changes are meant to reduce the influence of politicians in the judiciary and could force legislators to live in the constituencies they represent.

Correa has no official representatives in Congress, and opponents say he is pushing reform to extend his powers.

A former economy minister, Correa has rattled Wall Street and Washington with plans to restructure foreign debt, rewrite oil contracts and end an agreement giving the U.S. military use of an air base for counter-narcotics operations.

Still, foreign investors also worry the power struggle could weaken Correa's ability to rule and kill off another Ecuadorean government in its infancy.

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