By Joshua Partlow and Stephan Küffner
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 29, 2008
RIO DE JANEIRO, Sept. 28 -- Ecuadorans approved by a wide margin Sunday a new constitution that would expand the powers of President Rafael Correa and open the possibility that he could serve a decade in office.
Preliminary and unofficial results Sunday evening indicated that at least 65 percent of Ecuadorans voted for the constitution. That result, if confirmed in final totals, would hand an important political victory to Correa, the 45-year-old former economic minister who has made this a central issue in his first two years as president.
"Today Ecuador has decided on a new nation. The old structures are defeated," Correa told cheering supporters in the coastal city of Guayaquil. "This confirms the citizens' revolution."
The victory, Correa said, gives him the opportunity to effect rapid social change in pursuit of his vision of alleviating poverty and weakening the traditional elite as he implements what he calls "21st-century socialism."
Voting is mandatory for Ecuadorans ages 18 to 64, and nearly 10 million people were called to vote in the referendum, although absenteeism normally runs at close to 30 percent. The president of Ecuador's Supreme Electoral Court said he expected official results by Monday afternoon.
Rewriting constitutions has become a favorite tactic of a new crop of South American leaders eager to solidify their political agendas. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, an ideological ally of Correa's, increased his powers with a new constitution after he took office in 1999. Another like-minded politician, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, is fighting for a new constitution, but he has confronted entrenched, and sometimes violent, opposition led by regional governors who say he is mishandling the economy and threatening their interests.
In Ecuador, a 130-member constituent assembly -- a majority of which supported Correa -- convened to write the new constitution. The constitution gives the president the ability to abolish the National Congress once each term, although such a move would trigger presidential elections.
Opponents of the president say the document would allow Correa to consolidate too much control over the economy, as well as over strategic sectors such as oil and mining, without sufficient checks on his authority. And some voters said Sunday that the new constitution would create a bloated state that will not be able to meet expectations.
"The state will be unable to meet demand due to a lack of resources," said Lucia Cordero, 42, who was voting in La Floresta parish in northern Quito, an area home to both working-class and middle-class residents. "It's too statist."
Ecuador currently prohibits presidents from serving more than four consecutive years, although recent history shows that holding on to power even that long is difficult amid the country's tumultuous politics. The country has inaugurated eight presidents in the past decade.
The new constitution would allow two consecutive four-year terms, which, if Correa wins new elections planned for February, could put him in position for 10 years in office. However, government spokesman Vinicio Alvarado recently said that Correa would only serve another six years if he wins.
Correa's supporters emphasize that the 444-article document -- Ecuador's 20th constitution -- prohibits discrimination, respects private property, will increase spending on health care and the poor, and enshrines more rights for indigenous groups. In a country rich with ecological treasures, including the Galapagos Islands and part of the Amazon rain forest, the constitution also calls on government to avoid measures that would destroy ecosystems or drive species to extinction -- the first such measure of its kind, according to Ecuadoran officials. The constitution would allow civil unions for gay couples.
"We expect a change. We expect the government to meet its promises," said Beatriz Astudillo, outside a polling station in Quito.
Correa, educated in the United States and Belgium, was elected in December 2006 with 58 percent of the vote. He has been critical of the type of pro-privatization, free-market policies often referred to as the "Washington consensus," and he has taken bold if controversial moves in his mission against those he considers the corrupt rich.
Correa was criticized in July when he ordered a state takeover of major television stations. The government said they and other businesses were owned by two Ecuadoran brothers and former bankers accused of owing the state hundreds of millions of dollars. Correa was accused by opponents of attempting to use the TV stations to garner support for the new constitution, though the confiscations were also widely popular.
Correa dampened expectations that the broad changes outlined in the constitution could be introduced overnight. "We can't achieve anything immediately," he said, adding that new laws will have to be passed in the near-term to implement the guidelines of the constitution. "We don't have a minute to lose."
Küffner reported from Quito, Ecuador.