President Alfredo Palacio wants to make Ecuador’s voters an offer they cannot understand.

Mr Palacio has repeatedly tussled with Congress over political reform. He proposes a “constituent assembly” with powers over all other branches of government, while the legislature prefers a “constitutional assembly” whose role would be much more limited.

The president is attempting to put the issue to the country, and this week launched his third attempt to get congressional approval for a referendum on the issue. But although Mr Palacio has painted himself as the people’s saviour, in a Gallup poll released last week 82 per cent of respondents said they did not understand the difference between the two proposals.

One of the main issues on the agenda of the Summit of the Americas, which opens in Argentina on Friday, is how to strengthen democratic governance. But across the Andes, political elites are locking horns over the “rules of the game” while the institutions of government remain weak and support for democracy is fragile.

Bolivia’s electoral process has been in limbo for the past month while Congress haggled over the allocation of seats between the regions. On Tuesday, in the absence of an agreement, President Eduardo Rodríguez decreed a compromise and ordered elections for December 18.

Peru’s government received a bloody nose last week when voters rejected a plan for regional devolution that was years in the planning. Meanwhile, the country’s constitutional and electoral courts are engaged in a conflict over whether the former can review decisions made by the latter about elections in April 2006.

Colombia’s constitutional court last month upheld an amendment allowing President Alvaro Uribe to seek re-election next year. In Venezuela, supporters of President Hugo Chávez have signalled that after congressional elections next month they will push a constitutional amendment to abolish presidential term limits.

While the debates in the northern Andes relate specifically to presidential term limits, those of Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru have refocused longstanding social and political divisions on what are superficially constitutional issues.

As political elites clash over the mechanics of government, the results of an annual poll released last week by Latinobarómetro, a Chilean research organisation, suggests that support for democracy has waned in the southern Andes. The proportion of respondents agreeing that “democracy is preferable to any other type of government” has slipped since 1996 from 63 per cent to 40 per cent in Peru, 64 per cent to 49 per cent in Boliv-ia, and 52 per cent to 43 per cent in Ecuador.

Levels of satisfaction with democracy are low – 13 per cent in Peru, 14 per cent in Ecuador and 24 per cent in Bolivia. The survey also showed the southern Andes has among the highest support in Latin America for the idea that authoritarianism is sometimes preferable to democracy: 20 per cent in Peru; 19 per cent in Bolivia; and 18 per cent in Ecuador.

John Crabtree, of the Latin American Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford, says these figures suggest an alarming divergence in the southern Andes between governments and populations. “The gap between the state and society in the region is among the widest in Latin America,” he says. “The elites act in a world of their own, ignoring the real concerns of most of the population.”

Many are concerned that the “policy vacuum” between reform and the procedural debates of power-brokers could be filled by populists. Evo Morales, leader of the Movement to Socialism party, is frontrunner in Bolivia’s presidential race, on a platform of nationalising the gas industry, legalising the unlimited cultivation of coca, and land reform. Ollanta Humala, a militaristic nationalist, is rising in the polls in Peru, where the continuing weakness of democratic institutions has also fuelled speculation about the possible return of populist former President Alberto Fujimori.

Many observers worry that in focusing on procedural debates, governance is being quietly ignored. “The pending business of government is being put off in favour of constitutional rewriting,” says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank in Washington. “But Andean countries do not have the luxury of putting off serious reform. Focusing on constitutions is not the most constructive use of their limited political capital.”

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