President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is facing a key challenge in a weekend election for an assembly that is meant to reform the constitution and stem decades of political instability in the oil-rich Andean state.
Mr Correa says the 130-member assembly will resolve Ecuador’s chronic political problems, which have kept its previous four elected presidents from reaching the end of their terms. In all, seven presidents have served since 1997.
However, opinion polls last weekend showed that parties allied to Mr Correa may struggle to win an absolute majority in the assembly on Sunday, with some surveys suggesting they will take between 44 and 66 seats.
In any case, many voters doubt that the assembly will usher in much change.
“The proposals aren’t a strong departure from what we’ve seen in the past,” said Luis Borrero, a Quito-based consultant.
Mr Correa, a socialist who has threatened to default on national debt payments and renegotiate international oil contracts, has staked his political future on the assembly, even threatening to resign if his supporters fail to win a majority.
The assembly will be set the goal of abolishing the “partiocracy” of ruling elites that Mr Correa describes as the source of Ecuador’s troubles. But it is unclear whether the reforms will address the problems in the electoral system that have led to a string of bitterly divided legislatures.
If Mr Correa, 44, wins control, he could have power for sweeping change, though he may well fall short of the two-thirds majority necessary to approve the new constitution – which would then be subject to another popular vote.
The assembly “isn’t a perfect legislature – it’s a political formula that under no circumstance could leave the rule of law in limbo”, said Fabian Corral, a columnist in the Quito daily newspaper El Comercio, on Thursday.
So far, the president’s confrontational style has helped him to win the most solid political power base in recent memory. Control over the assembly could allow him to impose sweeping change.
But from his peak 76 per cent approval rating in pollster Cedatos’s monthly ranking following an April referendum on the constitutional reform plans, his popularity has waned steadily, sliding to 56 per cent by August.
Since democracy was restored in 1979, Ecuadorean politics have been marked by almost constant conflict between the executive and a unicameral, fragmented legislature.
However, the constitutional proposal submitted by Ecaudorean academics at Mr Correa’s request falls short of a radical recast of the current document, says Mr Borrero.
Mr Correa has promised a neutral constitution and says he supports a two-term limit for presidents.
Wording on how a president may be impeached – a key issue over the past decade, during which two presidents were removed by congress – remains ambiguous in the 373-article draft, as is the proposed reform of an electoral system that has consistently produced legislatures with unstable majorities. The draft constitution also includes clauses on social rights, such as guaranteeing workers a share of company profits, and a complex system to devolve power at the regional and local level.
But critics worry that Mr Correa may seek to centralise power in a similar vein to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and there are fears that he will seek to extend government influence over the economy, where he has indicated he wants to increase control over the oil industry.
A complex election system and numerous little-known parties and candidates may slow both the balloting and counting of votes. The electorate will have a tablecloth-sized ballot paper to fill in and some of the 3,229 candidates used their brief, government-funded television adverts to offer higher salaries – “a cheap show of offers that have nothing to do” with constitutional reform, said Mr Borrero.
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