Ecuador Forges an Uncertain Future

(International Relations and Security Network, 28/03/2007)


Rafael Correa became Ecuador’s president on 15 January during an inauguration attended by Bolivian President Evo Morales, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While Correa was happy to smile for photos with this impressive list of leftist, anti-American leaders, a long string of decisions since his inauguration has firmly placed him on a more pragmatic and conservative footing.


Against conservative banana magnate Alvaro Noboa, Correa appeared to observers as a socialist who would ignore international debt commitments and rip apart the country’s democratic institutions.


Balanced on such assumptions was talk of a Constituent Assembly (CA) and the ratification of a new constitution. It was a move Ecuador’s opposition-controlled Congress vehemently opposed, saying that such an assembly would serve only to dissolve the legislative branch, consolidating power within the executive office.


The idea behind a Constituent Assembly in South America is not new. As a tool for popular presidents, it can be useful in countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador, where a majority of the population perceives the elite political class as corrupt.


In Ecuador, Correa entered office with high popularity levels but no political support in Congress. His only option to make good on campaign promises is through directly appealing to his constituents.


By holding a plebiscite that will vote on whether or not Ecuador needs a Constituent Assembly, Correa can completely circumvent his political opponents in Congress. If Ecuadorians vote "yes" for the CA, then there will be a second vote to elect the delegates to the CA. Once the delegates convene, they will begin to debate and ultimately rewrite the country’s constitution.


Depending on the results of the CA, elections can then be held to elect new members to Ecuador’s Congress, currently run by men considered so corrupt that their presence does not reflect the democratic will of Ecuadorian voters. Congressional elections under a new constitution would all but guarantee the removal of Ecuador’s currently entrenched elite political class.


With a new constitution and a new Congress, Correa would be in a position to make good on a promise to "end the perverse system that has destroyed our democracy, our economy, and our society" made during his inaugural address.


Many think Correa can win the vote for a CA, but there is some doubt about whether he can win enough votes to maintain a majority of supporters in the CA.


Fearful of Correa's popularity, the Congress has sternly defended its position against the plebiscite. Yet over the course of three weeks in March, Correa managed to dissolve the most unruly portion of Congress while maintaining popularity, international support and democratic integrity.


Calling for a national plebiscite to have Ecuadorians vote on the formation of a CA, the president placed blame for over a decade of government mismanagement and poor stewardship of the country's vast resources on the vilified political class.


When the decree for the plebiscite arrived in Congress, the political elite reacted with a law designed to undermine the CA by weighing down the voting process with senseless bureaucracy. It was a bold-faced maneuver to challenge the central pillar of the Correa constituency’s top expectation.


Correa responded by cutting out the opposition’s changes and sending his original decree to Ecuador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the country’s highest court for matters pertaining to elections and electoral procedures.


In a surprising move, the Tribunal found for Correa and ordered that the decree, as Correa had drafted it, would stand. Ecuadorians will vote on the CA on 15 April.


The political friction sparked protests. Hundreds of Ecuadorians took to the streets to show support for Correa in his battle against the entrenched opposition in Congress.


Such a political upset was not taken lightly in Congress. No less than 57 of 100 deputies voted to remove the president of the Tribunal, Jorge Acosta, who replied on 7 March by expelling the same 57 deputies from Congress for their unconstitutional behavior.


On 19 March, after days of tension and protests, Correa’s government stated it would not allow the 57 expelled deputies to return to Congress. They had in fact been fired. Facing the lack of quorum in Congress, Correa then called for alternates to come forward to serve. Enough alternates, 21 in total, were sworn in on 20 March, re-establishing a quorum.


It is unlikely that the new Congress will pass any legislation, but with his own supporters there, the support of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and a plebiscite less than three weeks away, Correa is in a strong position to make Ecuador a new country.


The CA, if convened, will be a historic event that even conservatives in Ecuador will applaud as necessary and long overdue.


Outside observers, before considered critical of Correa’s plans, have weighed in. Remarking on Correa’s recent moves to weaken Congress ahead of a 15 April plebiscite, Tom Shannon, the US State Department’s top diplomat for Latin America, said Ecuador was unlikely to give in to the temptation of authoritarianism, suggesting that Washington did not fear the process of a CA on Correa’s watch.


Three months after his inauguration, Correa will oversee a nationwide vote that is likely to pave a path to Ecuador’s future. It is one that as yet remains highly unstable and difficult to predict. For now, however, it appears that Correa’s style of direct-democracy governing has a chance for success. Many conservatives are hopeful the CA will be successful. It is a risky play - but after a decade of corruption and hamstrung presidents, starting from scratch is probably the only option left.