(International Relations and Security Network, 06/02/2007)
Even though he has only been in office since 15 January, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa - the country's ninth president in a decade - is feeling the pressure to make good on his election promises as his supporters and others clash with police.
Correa's supporters expect him to deliver results after listening to a number of promises made during his presidential campaign. At the top of the list is a popular referendum, which by his second day in office, Correa had announced his intention to call for 18 March. Ecuadorians would vote on a number of Correa's proposed reforms, including a Constitutional Assembly.
Defying Correa's order to move forward with the referendum, Ecuador's electoral court ruled that the request for a popular referendum must be passed by the Congress, where it will surely face crippling opposition.
On 30 January, students, workers and a mass of Correa's supporters forced their way in to Ecuador's congressional building, with sticks, rocks and bottles, chanting "death to the rats" and "down with Congress, yes to the popular assembly." Congressional leader Jorge Ceballos closed the legislature and accused the Correa administration of inciting the protesters. But such endorsement for the new president may be short-lived if he fails in his pledges.
Correa ran as an independent, standing on a platform that would rally the support of a number of smaller groups, from students and workers to indigenous rights groups. His political party, Alianza Pais (AP), has no representation in Congress, where his opponent, Alvaro Noboa, controls the largest block with 28 of 100 seats. The second largest block, with 24 seats, falls under the influence of former Ecuadorian president Lucio Gutierrez, who has presidential ambitions. Correa does not appear to have focused on building an alliance within Congress.
Instead, the president will likely circumvent congressional oversight through a Constituent Assembly. According to a 20 January Cedatos/Gallup poll, Correa's approval rating is currently above 70 percent, while that of Congress hovers just under 15 percent. With these numbers, Correa will have for a limited time the political capital necessary to push through a popular referendum. However, Congress is likely to dig in, knowing a Constitutional Assembly will likely call for early elections.
If Correa forces congressional elections by decision of an assembly, his popularity may hold long enough to gain backing in Congress. The rewards are great, but the risks are greater. Betting on popular support to outlast the legislators' efforts to defend their position may result in a stalemate that would test Ecuadorians' patience. Correa knows how quickly popular support can turn into calls for his removal. Some of his predecessors lasted only three days.
But as Congress debates the popular referendum, Correa is already at work making good on smaller promises. He has begun cleaning out the top ranks of the national police, fulfilling his promise to root out corruption there.
In the aftermath of a helicopter crash on 24 January that killed Ecuadorian Defense Minister Guadalupe Larriva, investigations revealed sloppy planning and Correa quickly dismissed Army Chief Pedro Machado.
By signing oil deals with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to improve Ecuador's refining process, Correa has sealed a geopolitical relationship between the two countries that for now will help Ecuador manage its oil assets. Deals with Venezuela will boost technical expertise and refining necessary to keep Ecuador's oil revenue flowing. Correa has taken the first steps toward the larger goal of placing more of Ecuador's oil assets under state control, and he will likely spend windfall oil revenue on social programs that will buoy approval ratings.
Correa has also said he would not sign a Free Trade Agreement with the US. He is also not likely to renew a US military lease to use the Ecuadorian airbase in Manta. Both are popular moves among his constituents.
Appeasing Ecuador's indigenous community, Correa announced on 5 February that his government would suspend contracts with any oil company that needlessly damaged the environment. His administration's first probe will be into the operations of a Brazilian company inside of one of Ecuador's natural preserves.
This list of measures and others scheduled to come in the next few weeks will keep Correa's approval ratings high for the foreseeable future. But the outcome of plans for a popular referendum will determine the end result of Correa's presidential term.
As Ecuador's Congress digs in, Correa is likely to stoke popular sentiment. But he must be careful. Correa's election shows that Ecuadorians demand radical change. And it is unclear how much time they are willing to give him to make good on his promises.