The people of Ecuador are rising up to refound their country as a pluri-national homeland for all. This inspiring movement, with Ecuador's indigenous peoples at its heart, is part of the revolution spreading across the Americas, laying the groundwork for a new, fairer, world. Ecuador Rising aims to bring news and analysis of events unfolding in Ecuador to english speakers.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Ecuadorian Constitutional Reform: A Bend or a Break?

Stratfor, Feb 28, 2007
Ecuadorians are likely to approve an April 15 referendum to revise the constitution. President Rafael Correa aims to use the constitutional reform process to consolidate his power and kick the country's entrenched party elite out of Congress. With a weak judiciary and an unpopular legislature, Correa could become nearly as powerful in Ecuador as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has become in his country. However, opposition groups appear to be stronger in Ecuador than in Venezuela, so compromises are more likely. Correa's presidency -- which probably will last longer than most recent Ecuadorian presidencies -- is a boon to Chavez's regional ambitions, but Ecuador is peripheral to the region and the overall effects of its domestic politics will be limited.

Ecuadorians will vote in a popular referendum April 15 on whether to create an assembly for constitutional reform. Since constitutional reform was one of President Rafael Correa's central campaign promises when he was elected in the November 2006 runoff, the referendum is likely to have enough public support to pass.

Ecuador seems to have caught the constitutional reform fever spreading in Latin American countries within Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's sphere of influence. Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are all taking steps to amend their constitutions, and Nicaragua might join in. In each country, the rationale for reform is that the current structure favors the elite and foreign business interests at the expense of the general population. Meanwhile, in the grip of populist socialist ideology and charismatic leadership, these countries are edging toward increasingly authoritarian regimes. Though Bolivia and Ecuador broadly support Chavez's regional ambitions, they are much less likely to succumb to a concentration of unchecked power.

Concerns that Correa wishes to expand executive power at the expense of the judiciary and legislature are not mere right-wing paranoia. The judicial and legislative branches in Ecuador have become so discredited that the idea of reform without their constraint is very popular. Judicial appointment processes have deviated from the law that authorizes them, and competing judges are issuing more frequent conflicting rulings. Furthermore, according to a Feb. 15 Cedatos/Gallup poll, Correa's approval rating is just above 70 percent, while Congress, opposition groups' main vehicle for action, is polling at 8 percent. Though Ecuador most likely will bend toward Bolivarianism under Correa's leadership, it is possible that the president will override Congress and undertake a more dramatic break with Ecuador's current governmental structure and political elite.

Correa wanted Ecuador's referendum to take place sooner -- March 18 -- and for the resultant constitutional assembly to have unlimited powers, including the power to dismiss current members of Congress. Unsurprisingly, Congress denied the assembly such powers in the same vote that set the referendum for April 15. The 100-member body voted 57-1 (most of the opposition walked out of the vote in protest of the constitutionality of the proposed assembly), indicating that though almost 60 percent of Congress supports Correa, even that portion does not fully support him. Signaling that he does not intend to be deterred by a deliberative body that requires compromise, Correa threatened Feb. 17 to resign if his agenda does not receive support from at least 70 percent of the constitutional assembly. This is likely a bluff, however, and Congress apparently aims to drive a hard bargain. On Feb. 26, a coalition of congressmen from the National Action Institutional Renewal Party, Patriotic Society Party (PSP), Social Christian Party and Christian Democratic Union announced its intent to further restrict the powers of a constituent assembly. Though confirming a new attorney general, these legislators made statements to the effect that any decisions related to altering Ecuador's companies law, judicial appointments or the formation of assemblies must be brought before the legislature for debate and a vote.

Correa has not announced many details regarding the modifications he proposes, but he has an easy case to make for reforming some aspects of the constitution. Ecuador is hardly a model of effective checks and balances; the most obvious structural problem is that the Supreme Court's members are elected by the Supreme Court itself (though this did not prevent Congress from appointing an entirely new court in 2004). Also, presidents cannot serve two consecutive terms (although this has hardly been an issue lately, considering Ecuador has had eight presidents since 2006). Ecuador also has a unicameral legislature; though this is not necessarily bad in and of itself, it can exacerbate abuses of power and is an easier scapegoat for executive complaints than a bicameral legislature.

If Correa's objective were only to improve the structure of the government, it might be welcome. But his rhetoric suggests that his fundamental objective is to remove a semi-entrenched political class (the "Party-ocracy," as he calls it) from power, inevitably expanding his own power in the process. This players-based approach is an alarming motivation for legal reform, and even more so for constitutional reform.

As long as Congress is not disbanded and the press is not curtailed, Ecuador is not on the brink of becoming another Venezuela. For example, Venezuela's legislature voted Jan. 31 to give Chavez total special powers; in contrast, Ecuador's legislature denied granting similar powers to a constitutional assembly -- and that was the part of the legislature that supports Correa's general direction. Furthermore, in March 2005 Venezuela reformed its criminal code to increase penalties for "insulting" public authorities and institutions; Ecuador has not yet attempted any such infringement upon freedom of the press, and there are no indications that such moves are on the horizon.

Correa needs to navigate between a system badly in need of reform, a public primed for change, deeply concerned business interests and the temptation to push the limits of power consolidation. Indigenous groups such as Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, as well as former President Lucio Gutierrez, leader of the PSP, support constitutional reform. PSP is not monolithically behind Correa, however, and many of its members have voiced concerns that Chavez might rule Ecuador through Correa as a proxy.

This is similar to accusations leveled against Bolivian President Evo Morales. Correa and Morales both have good reason to distance themselves from perceptions of being Venezuelan puppets; but such perceptions do not play well domestically, and burning bridges with leaders other than Chavez could prove dangerous if Chavez cannot be Morales and Correa's eternal patron. And with oil prices falling and Venezuela's hostility to foreign investors impeding expanded oil production, Venezuela increasingly will have to use its cash to solve problems at home rather than renting friends abroad.

Constitutional reform is a dangerous moment for Ecuadorian politics. However, the country's still-vigorous opposition and free press, plus the fact that Correa does not seem to have the same appetite for alienating the United States as Chavez, will make it difficult for power in Ecuador to fall into one man's hands. If Correa chooses to play hardball, however, the deck is stacked in his favor; the judiciary is weak, Congress is unpopular and public sentiment is behind him.

Whatever the outcome of the constitutional reforms, it appears that, geopolitically, Chavez has secured an ally -- and U.S. ally Colombia is flanked on both sides by a reinvigorated Bolivarian revolution. This could particularly concern Colombia since border tensions with Ecuador have escalated over the past few months -- including Ecuador's decision to open a new port authority on the border, and Ecuadorian threats to have its air force escort Colombian crop-dusting planes to the ground if they get too close.

Correa will take steps from time to time to assert his independence from Chavez, but Chavez clearly inspires him, and the two leaders are unlikely to disagree on major regional policy initiatives. Nonetheless, Ecuador does not hold a geographically central position on the continent like Bolivia, nor is it an economic force to be reckoned with like Brazil. Ecuador's momentum will help keep Chavez's regional ambitions alive, but it will not be a major player in the region.

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