As Luis Fleischman, writing for The Americas Report, predicted last November, the Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, is creating a constituent assembly aimed at increasing a more authoritarian system of government.

Such a system would include the further deterioration of political representative institutions in favor of a stronger executive power. Furthermore, Fleischman pointed out that “Mr. Correa’s party is a political movement detached from a structure that sees elections only as means to gain votes, to establish himself in power and later rule without a free functioning legislative branch.

Thus, “the assembly will determine the elimination of party plurality in favor of the almighty political leader (with a direct connection to the masses). As soon as he gathers more power, Mr. Correa will proceed to dismantle political pluralism in Ecuador and will move in the direction set by Hugo Chávez” (Luis Fleischman, “Elections in Ecuador”, CSP Security Forum, November 9, 2006).

Indeed, President Rafael Correa’s proposal to create a Constituent Assembly to rewrite Ecuador’s Constitution won an overwhelming 81.7% of the votes in a national Referendum on April 15, 2007. More than 70% of Ecuador’s 9.2 million voters participated. The Supreme Electoral Court has resolved to convene elections on September 30, 2007 for the 130 delegates to a Constituent National Assembly.[1]

Since being elected President of Ecuador, Mr. Correa had been pushing the idea of a new constitution ‘to fight against corruption.’ Disenchantment with congress, political parties and the judiciary were key factors in Rafael Correa’s presidential victory last year.[2] But many see the result of the Referendum as a power grab by the President who didn’t present candidates for Congress and had little support to advance his policies. One possibility is that the only way out of this stalemate was to dissolve the Legislative body and replace it with a new one that would support his agenda.

Why did Rafael Correa call for a Constituent Assembly?

Mr. Correa won the Presidential elections on November 26, 2006 in a runoff with candidate, Alvaro Noboa, but his party had few representatives in the Congress. With only minor support of a few Representatives from other political parties, his administration had difficulties in trying to create a Constituent Assembly from the start. The relationship between Congress and the President deteriorated since he assumed the Presidency on January of this year. Things got even worse in March, when Congress removed the President of the Federal Court, Jorge Acosta, for convoking a Referendum without the approval of the legislative body. In response the Electoral Court fired 57 opposition members of Congress. The right-wing opposition deputies were ousted over their refusal to go along with radical constitutional reforms promoted by Rafael Correa. They were soon replaced by 21 substitute delegates. After more than a month of turmoil, Congress finally held its first session on April 10th. Ousted lawmakers continued to meet in parallel, trying to push for some type of legal solution to their removal.[3]

But just last week, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the 57 opposition legislators who were fired last month should be allowed to return to their posts. In retaliation, Congress (with a majority of government-friendly parliamentarians) voted to sack all the judges on the Tribunal. In a shocking move, President Rafael Correa ordered police to block the reinstated legislators from returning to their seats while federal prosecutor, Elsa Moreno, ordered the arrest of 24 deputies, nearly half of the 50 who the country’s highest court had ordered reinstated to Congress and charged them with ‘sedition.’ Prosecutor Elsa Moreno, who is in charge of the case, alleges that the 24 lawmakers ‘plotted’ against the state and ‘acted against the government, refusing to recognize the constitution, and impeding a meeting of the Congress.” (They were initially fired for allegedly interfering with a national referendum to allow Correa to pursue his aim of rewriting the constitution).

It is reported that 15 of the 50 legislators are in Colombia and have said they will ask for political asylum in that country. (Correa had already warned that if any of the dismissed lawmakers tried to enter by force, “it will be necessary to send them to prison”). In a recent development, Ecuadorian legislator Gloria Gallardo who fled to Colombia this week to seek political asylum returned to Ecuador Friday. Upon her arrival at the airport of Guayaquil, her hometown, Gallardo said that during her stay in Colombia she had denounced the political situation in Ecuador, the CRE radio network reported.[4] The Latin American Association of Human Rights President, Juan de Dios Parra, sent a letter April 26 asking the Colombian, Peruvian and U.S. governments to deny the Ecuadorian opposition legislators asylum. The letter said asylum is intended “to protect the security and lives of people who are persecuted for their ideas” and that the legislators’ lives are not in danger.[5]

Correa’s position is supported by Ecuador’s Top Electoral Court, which fired the lawmakers in March and says that it – not the Constitutional Tribunal – has the final say on electoral matters. That court’s president warned that the six constitutional tribunal judges who voted to reinstate the ousted congressmen could be charged with abusing their authority.[6]

In recent declarations, however, Correa insisted the removal of the opposition lawmakers remain in force, but that ‘he opposed the arrest order for the 24 accused of sedition.’ He said that “as the one responsible for the peace of the people,” he would tell the authorities to rescind the order.[7]

Implications

The huge support Correa received on April 15, 2007 has given him the legitimacy to convoke a Constituent Assembly to change the Constitution. He will likely pursue other radical reforms including increasing state control over the natural-resource industrial sector. The renegotiation of contracts with private oil and gas firms will give the state a majority stake and increased revenue could begin as soon as this year. In addition, Mr. Correa is not planning to renew the lease on the US’s base in Manta used for drug surveillance flights. (The ten-year lease expires in 2009). About 300 US servicemen and employees work at the base, and the Correa administration has said it considers their presence an affront to Ecuador’s sovereignty. President Correa also insists that it will not renew talks for a free-trade agreement (FTA) with the United States.[8]

Opponents of the president claim he is following in the footsteps of Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, who successfully pushed for the election of a constituent assembly packed with his supporters in 1999. As Chávez in Venezuela, Correa won the elections, and then called for a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution. Both Presidents have taken control of the courts and have allegedly intimidated business people, journalists and members of the opposition. They have even tried to regulate news organizations. As Mr. Chávez before, Mr. Correa opposes IMF and World Bank policies (He has already expelled the representative of the World Bank in Ecuador for ‘blackmailing’ him when he was Minister of Economy during the Palacio administration). Coincidently, on April 15th, Correa announced that Ecuador had paid off its entire outstanding debt to the International Monetary Fund, which he has long criticized for imposing harsh conditions on borrowing nations, the same day Venezuela finished paying its debt with the mentioned organization. The government still plans to restructure Ecuador’s US$16.5bn foreign debt.[9]

“Correa is trying to fix a mistake with another mistake,” said Ramiro Crespo, president of Analytica Securities, an investment bank. “His lack of respect for political institutions is troubling, but Ecuador’s internal conditions may prevent him from getting too far.” In contrast to other oil-exporting countries like Venezuela, Ecuador is not benefiting greatly from high oil prices. Economic growth in the last quarter of 2006 slowed to 2.2%, well below the 4% growth in the previous quarter, after output declined in oil fields seized by the government last year from Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles, which was Ecuador’s largest foreign investor. Confusion over Mr. Correa’s economic policies has also unsettled investors, with banks lending less to builders and other companies.[10]

There are still some challenges for Mr. Correa. Once the Constituent Assembly is formed, the internal battle there could be fierce. Mr. Correa might find it difficult to achieve consensus to push forward the reforms he seeks. Delegates from Ecuador’s traditional parties might battle to maintain their groups’ privileges and authority. Former President Lucio Gutiérrez (ousted by congress in 2005), whose Partido Social Patriótico (PSP) is now the second largest party in Congress, could attempt to use the assembly to build his political power. Also, a high degree of popular mobilization, in the midst of persistent social and regional tensions, as well as weak and divided institutions, will make social unrest and political destabilization ever-present risks.[11]

What is apparently clear is that Mr. Correa and friendly political parties are consolidating their control over the courts and the Legislature. It is likely that the new Constitution will contain many of Correa’s (and Chávez’s) ideas on political and economic matters. Political uncertainty may push investors to seek greener pastures and some might want to get their money out of the country resulting in capital flight. Unemployment and difficulty with tax collection could follow. Popular unrest will increase if social demands are not met.

A new Constitution and a new legislative body do not mean that the country’s problems will disappear. It could be the beginning of a new but unstable era for Ecuador. There are many possible scenarios: the country might be headed for radicalsocialism. Correa might be very close to obtaining more, unchecked and unlimited power in order to change the political and economic structure of the nation according to his beliefs. Another possibility is that if Correa believes he has been given a blank check because of the massive support he received last week and he already sees the opposition as an obstacle to ‘re-found Ecuador,’ then he is likely to adopt an exclusivist and authoritarian type of regime.

[1] Ecuador lawmakers may seek asylum in Colombia. April 25, 2007. CNN.

[2] Ecuador, Ever Unstable, Prepares for New Leader’s Plans. April 14, 2007. The New York Times.

[3] Encuesta a boca de urna en Ecuador. April 15, 2007. El Mercurio, Chile.

[4] Ecuador lawmakers may seek asylum in Colombia. April 25, 2007. CNN.

[5] Ecuador: Deny Legislators Asylum — ALDHU Head. April 26, 2007. Stratfor.

[6] Ecuador’s Congress dismisses top judges. April 24, 2007. CNN.

[7] Lawmakers flee Ecuador in political crisis. April 25, 2007. AFP.

[8] Voters back plans to rewrite the constitution. April 17th 2007. The Economist.

[9] Encuesta a boca de urna en Ecuador. April 16, 2007. El Mercurio, Chile.

[10] Correa to Rewrite Ecuador’s Constitution after Vote. April 15, 2007. Bloomberg.

[11] Voters back plans to rewrite the constitution. April 17th 2007. The Economist.

 

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