Ecuador’s hyper-political wave

About the author
Guy Hedgecoe is co-editor of the website Iberosphere, which provides news, comment and analysis of Spain and the Iberian world. He was previously editor of the English-language edition of El Pais, and founded and edited the Ecuador Focus weekly bulletin and the Qorreo website

The result of the referendum held on 28 September 2008 on a new Ecuadorian constitution is the latest in a series of major victories at the ballot for Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa. This most recent win may have been both divisive and controversial, yet it could ensure the leftist president enjoys an uninterrupted decade in power.

Guy Hedgecoe is editor of the English-language edition of El Pais. He founded and edited the Ecuador Focus weekly bulletin, and has reported the Andean region from Ecuador for CNN, National Public Radio, the Miami Herald, the Financial Times and France 24

"Losing Ecuador" (26 April 2005)

"Ecuador's energy-fuelled politics" (28 June 2006)

"Ecuador's election surprise" (17 October 2006)

"Ecuador: protest and power" (28 November 2006)

"Ecuador's politics of expectation" (1 February 2008)
The decisive victory - of the 90% of votes counted at the time of writing, 64% supported the "yes" vote, 28% voted "no", while the votes of 8% were void or blank - means this Andean country will see the twentieth constitution of its history. Aside from enabling the president to serve two terms in a row, Ecuador's new charter increases civic participation in the running of the country as well as restructuring state institutions. The president and his party will have much greater control over the legislature, the judiciary and supervisory bodies, as well as over the economy.

"Today Ecuador has decided on a new nation, the old structures are defeated", a jubilant Correa told supporters as the results of the vote emerged. He described the victory as "so convincing and so crushing, beyond all our expectations."

Since winning the 2006 presidential run-off, the 45-year-old Correa had already won two further elections - a landslide victory in a vote on his proposal to establish a constituent assembly charged with writing the new constitution, and the election to fill that new body's seats. The former economy minister sees the constitutional-referendum result as another major advance for his "civic revolution", which he believes will rid the country of corruption, introduce economic and political stability and ensure social equality.

The presidential present

The campaign leading up to the poll failed to generate much serious debate. The blame for this lies in part with the government (led by Correa's Alianza País movement) and the flimsy opposition, but in part too with the constitutional text itself. The document's 440 articles is a labyrinth of idealistic generalisation, nebulous ambiguity and outright contradiction. The constituent assembly which drew up the document agonised over it in the early stages, then got sidetracked by frivolous proposals such as enshrining a woman's "right to sexual pleasure" (which in the end was not included). The final weeks leading up to the deadline for its completion in July were therefore a frenzy of rubber- stamping, and much of the resulting constitution is open to interpretation.

This semantic vagueness threatened to capsize Correa's campaign. A lack of clarity in the text allowed devout Catholics to claim - mistakenly - that the new constitution sought to legalise abortion and homosexual marriage. "I vote no because I love God", read one campaign sticker; another asked, more relevantly: "Would you sign a contract containing over 400 articles without having even read it?"

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Latin America's new politics:

Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?" (9 August 2007)

Stephanie Blankenburg, "Venezuela: a complicated referendum" (4 December 2008)

Adam Isacson, "The Colombia - Venezuela - Ecuador tangle" (17 March 2008)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's guerrillas: between past and future" (16 June 2008)

Gaby Oré Aguilar, "Peru vs Fujimori: justice in the time of reason" (10 July 2008)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia's political ferment: revolution and recall" (13 August 2008)

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina: a crisis of riches" (17 July 2008)

Justin Vogler, "Bolivia nears the precipice" (17 September 2008)

Julia Buxton, "Hugo Chávez and Venezuela: questions of leadership" (25 September 2008)
The "yes" campaign, for its part, bombarded Ecuadorians with propaganda - via television, radio and print - yet failed to explain to them exactly what they were voting on.

On both sides, simplistic rhetoric and hysteria left the big issues relatively untouched. The spectre of abortion and gay marriage dented Correa's support among church-going Catholics, but this was countered by a deluge of government handouts to farmers, students and residents of poor rural areas. Both helped to make the actual content of the constitutional text to a great extent irrelevant. "We don't know much about the constitution around here, but at least we're seeing public works," said one man from Caimito, near the Pacific port of Guayaquil, before he voted "yes".

The main changes in the new constitution have their staunch defenders and fierce critics. But the so-called "transition regime", which will bridge the political hiatus between the current political framework and the new state structure, is particularly controversial.

Under the new system a national assembly will replace the old congress (itself rendered defunct in 2007 when the constituent assembly was temporarily established). Until the new assembly's members are elected, a transitional body will legislate, its representation being based on that of the current constituent body, which is dominated by the ruling Alianza País. During this period of political limbo, the transitional legislative body will make a series of long-term judicial and supervisory appointments; and by the time general elections take place - possibly in spring 2009 - Alianza País will have a firm grip on the courts and state-supervisory entities, as well as (in all likelihood) the new legislature.

An end to "partidocracy"?

For many, this will be a welcome break with a turbulent political decade in which seven presidents have ruled Ecuador. Moreover, the new allowance for a president to run for a second consecutive four-year term (the term which Correa began in January 2007 will be effectively wiped off the slate) also offers the novelty of an Ecuadorian leader implementing a far-sighted political vision.

Rafael Correa's opponents see this as facilitating a one-way ticket to a totalitarian state. But at the moment that opposition is conspicuous by its absence. Correa's rise as a political outsider has marginalised, and in some cases destroyed, most of the parties which had controlled the country since the end of military rule in the late 1970s. The only figure of note left from what Correa disdainfully calls "the partidocracy" is Jaime Nebot, the mayor of Guayaquil. The president is himself a native of the coastal city, but his increasingly heated exchanges with Nebot and accusations that the city - like Bolivia's department of Santa Cruz - wants to break away from the rest of the country have made Guayaquil a hub of anti-Correa sentiment.

Correa's comparison of Guayaquil with the separatists of Santa Cruz is echoed by the claim of Hugo Chávez - who rarely hesitates before declaiming on his neighbours' internal affairs - that powerful groups in the city are seeking independence from Ecuador. Nebot hit back, and the ensuing verbal fracas saw the Venezuelan embassy in Quito denounce "a separatist, violent and fascist sentiment among sectors of the extreme right in various countries of the region." Correa's silence throughout this short furore was deafening.

The fact that Ecuador's constitutional referendum boosts the president's power and state control over the economy inevitably carries echoes of Bolivia and Venezuela; and Venezuela's leader has said the rewriting of his own country's constitution was similar to the process which has now been completed by Correa. When preliminary results of the referendum were released, Hugo Chávez immediately sent "a greeting to the Ecuador which is freeing itself, and to its leader, President Rafael Correa. Long live a free, Bolivarian Ecuador!" he added. But while the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan leaders clearly share a personal affinity, Correa has not signed up to Chávez's radical alliance, the Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas.

True, Correa's critics have plenty of evidence for their claim that his hatred of the United States is deep and principled: his refusal to renew the US military's contract for use of the air-base in Manta for anti-narcotics surveillance; his rocky relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF); his voicing of support (albeit vague) for Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez's expulsions of American ambassadors from their respective countries, and his advocacy of the "21st-century socialism" the Venezuelan president has proclaimed; even his father's period in jail in the US for trafficking drugs.

However, Correa - who studied for a post-graduate degree in the United States - has maintained an amiable relationship with the US embassy in Quito. The Ecuadorian president, it seems, is pragmatic enough to keep his more radical instincts in check - at least when it comes to foreign policy.

In domestic terms, his instincts are more unbridled. The referendum campaign brought them to the fore. In July 2008, he ordered the seizure of two television channels and dozens of other companies owned by the Isaías brothers, who fled Ecuador (and fraud charges) during the banking crisis of the late 1990s. Ecuadorians still angry at the impunity of the country's corrupt oligarchs applauded the measure; though others saw it both as a cheap vote-winning exercise and a gauche violation of media freedom (the seized TV channels, which were previously virulently anti-Correa, are now meekly in step with government policy). Meanwhile, the president's relationship with the press has become unhealthily tense and his language when addressing rivals increasingly colourful. But while the authoritarian tendencies are clear to see, it is still premature to describe Rafael Correa's government as actively repressive.

A "hyper-political" future

In the area of social policy, the president's supporters cite a range of initiatives aimed at making life better for poor Ecuadorians (though they have yet to have a real impact): an increase in the minimum wage, a "poverty-bond" handout, more credit for farmers and efforts to improve the nation's woeful health and education systems.

These are all being implemented within the context of an economy whose currency is the US dollar - the result of a panic-driven decision in January 2000 by the government of Jamil Mahuad. The government's high-spending style of politics is fuelling speculation that if Correa remains in power for a long period, de-dollarisation is a distinct possibility.

Correa has since his days as a university professor voiced doubts about the 2000 decision, which violated a clause in the previous constitution maintaining that Ecuador's currency was the sucre. The new document, perhaps tellingly, makes no such reference to the dollar.

The potential problems of the new charter include the massive state outlay its many noble intentions imply. If its promise to give every Ecuadorian full social-security coverage is anything other than an empty one, the cost will be massive. Ecuador's oil revenues make up 70% of exports, and are currently sustaining Correa's already lavish spending. But a drop in crude prices coupled with (say) a return of the El Niño floods or a major earthquake, would leave a country which is unable to print its own money in severe difficulties. The new constitution may give the president control over policies which were previously the remit of the central bank, but that may not be enough in the long-term for a hands-on economist like Correa, who has made no secret of his hankering for a truly national currency.

Ecuador's obsession with producing new constitutions is proof that these documents do not stand up to the test of time. Yet while many of those who backed this new charter had reservations or simply hadn't read it, their vote shows that their desire for change is more powerful than any qualms. Rafael Correa can answer accusations that he has carved himself a custom-made "hyper-presidential" system by pointing to the series of free and fair national votes he has already overseen.

But democracy also demands rigorous checks and balances, which are now worryingly absent in Ecuador. Another round of general elections approaches; already they appear only the next stage in Correa's never-ending campaign to win votes - one which could distract him from actually achieving many of the laudable goals he set out when he came into power.