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.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Ecuador's leader takes all-or-nothing approach

By Hal Weitzman in Lima
Published: 12/4/2007


Rafael Correa has been Ecuador's president for fewer than 100 days, but he is already threatening to resign.

As the country prepares to vote on Sunday in a referendum on whether to launch the process of rewriting the constitution, the radical leftwinger has deliberately portrayed the vote as a high-stakes political gamble.

Asked this week if he would step down if the country rejected his plan for sweeping political reform, Mr Correa vacillated momentarily before issuing his threat. "I would have to think about it very seriously," he said, but then – apparently having thought about it – added: "I would not stay in the post."

The all-or-nothing approach is intended to force voters to back his plans for an elected assembly that would have six months to write a new constitution. Many of his critics fear he will use that body to concentrate power in his own hands, following the lead of his leftist allies in the region such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

"His blind obsession with the assembly and his willingness to do whatever it takes to make it happen makes me wonder if he actually wants to change the state for the good or to maintain himself in office in perpetuity," says Sebastián Mantilla Baca, a political commentator in Quito who is critical of Mr Correa.

The president knows he is highly unlikely to have his bluff called. In the most recent opinion poll by Cedatos, a local pollster, 63 per cent said they intended to vote Yes, with only 20 per cent opting for a No vote. A larger-than-expected number of spoiled ballots could prevent the Yes campaign reaching the more than 50 per cent the proposal needs to pass, but the chances seem remote: only 17 per cent of respondents in the poll said they would void their voting papers.

A Yes vote would launch Ecuador into its third electoral cycle since November, setting up an election for a constituent assembly later this year. For Mr Correa, whose party has no representatives in the Congress elected last year, this will be critical, enabling him to bypass institutions of government that he views as dominated by his political foes.

The president will be looking to win at least a simple majority of the 130 seats. His campaign strategy is already well established: he will paint himself as the defender of the people against the stale and corrupt entrenched political elites.

His actions as president have already helped create that image. Since taking office in January, policies such as Mr Correa's plans for debt restructuring and renegotiating oil contracts have been put on hold while he has picked fights with a Congress dominated by his political opponents.

In a series of contrary judicial decisions in recent weeks, 57 of the legislature's 100 members were sacked for attempting to block the referendum, a ruling that was itself struck down and reinstated several times.

The result is that Ecuador now has two bodies claiming to be the country's legitimate Congress. One has been meeting in the legislature's regular building, made up of the members who were not sacked and of "supplementary" deputies who replaced those who were. The other, comprising the sacked lawmakers, has convened in the Hotel Quito. Both claim legitimacy and denounce the other as unconstitutional.

The institutional chaos and confusion may have weakened the functioning of democracy, but it has also boosted Mr Correa's reputation as a bruiser unafraid to use the presidency to take on vested interests. In a country where Congress is deeply unpopular, that should help the president, whose political reform plans depend not only on him securing a Yes on Sunday, but in using that as a launchpad to win a majority in the constituent assembly itself.

That outcome is far from certain: the opposition is better organised and more experienced than Mr Correa's party, which was formed to fight the last election. And Mr Correa has at least one very popular political rival: Lucio Gutiérrez, whose party had a strong showing in last year's general elections.

Although many critics have expressed concern about Mr Correa's ambitions within the assembly, the main opposition parties have been careful to support the Yes campaign. "They know that the No has very little chance of winning, and they don't want to appear as the great losers of this struggle with the president," says Polibio Córdova of Cedatos.

But many analysts fear that the assembly will merely become an institutional space for reproducing the same animosities that have so divided the country in recent months. "We shouldn't assume that new institutions will work better, if both new and experienced politicians continue acting the same way," says Rodrigo Borja, the former president.

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