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.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Ecuador's warring congresses vie for control

Euro2day, Mar 20, 2007.

By Hal Weitzman in Caracas
Ecuador slipped further into political chaos on Tuesday, with the likely creation of rival pro- and anti-government legislatures, each claiming legitimacy under the constitution.

The institutional crisis – pitting all the main arms of government against each other – underlines the fragile state of democracy in Ecuador, one of the most politically unstable countries in South America.

One legislative body, including lawmakers who support president Rafael Correa, met under heavy guard in Congress.

The other, made up of 57 opposition legislators sacked after a fight with the country's judiciary, was expected to meet in northern Quito.

"If [the sacked members of Congress] meet elsewhere, it will be an illegitimate body, because those legislators were legally sanctioned," said Jorge Cevallos, the president of Congress, who appears to have switched loyalties from the opposition Prian party.

The situation follows electoral results last year that handed the presidency to Mr Correa, a radical leftwinger determined to enact sweeping political reform, but which gave control of Congress to his rivals.

Mr Correa has called for a referendum on April 15 on whether to convoke an assembly to rewrite the constitution. This month the legislature tried to delay the poll by sacking the head of the electoral court. The court deemed that move illegal and fired the 57 Congress members who supported it.

Mr Cevallos said he would instead convene the Congress with substitute deputies, elected last year in case members of Congress needed to be replaced. "With the substitutes we will have a quorum," he said.

If the opposition proceeds with its rival legislature, the country will be presented with two Congresses, both of which can claim electoral legitimacy and a quorum of at least 51 members.

The opposition lobbied substitutes and urged them not to attend the government-backed Congress. That tactic appeared to have failed on Tuesday, as 22 substitute deputies were ferried to Congress with an escort of hundreds of armed police.

The deposed politicians refused to outline their strategy, saying they feared they would be attacked by pro-government activists. They had threatened to try again to take up their seats in Congress, a move that resulted in violence last week. In response, the government installed about 1,450 police outside the building.

Gloria Gallardo, one of the most outspoken opposition members of Congress, said if Mr Cevallos convened the government-backed legislature with substitutes, "it will be a caricature, because it will not be a proper check on the government".

At his weekly radio broadcast last week, Mr Correa attacked the opposition legislators. "If these so-called 'fathers of the country' have any dignity left, they should go home quietly and ask the people for forgiveness," he said.

Mr Correa's struggle with Congress is a gamble. On one hand, the body is very unpopular, with approval ratings of about 13 per cent, while there is much support for political reform. On the other hand, the legislature has deposed two of Mr Correa's recent predecessors, and the opposition is experienced and tenacious.

Critics of Mr Correa accuse him of provoking the crisis to shore up his popularity ahead of the referendum and subsequent elections to the constituent assembly later this year.

Mr Correa will have been studying the opinion polls: his approval rating is falling at a rate of about 2 percentage points a month, according to Cedatos, a pollster.

Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst at the Eurasia group in New York, noted that Mr Correa could emerge stronger from the chaos in the short term, but that there could be "negative medium and long-term ramifications".

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