July 24, 2008
QUITO, Ecuador -- A proposed new constitution grants Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa broad powers including the ability to dissolve Congress and set monetary policy, and would let him stay in office through 2017.
The charter, up for initial approval Thursday, is needed to help wrest power from Ecuador's widely discredited traditional political parties and more equitably distribute wealth, the U.S.-trained economist who took office in January 2007 said.
Correa's detractors say the proposed constitution would concentrate excessive power in his hands and amount to a virtual coronation of the self-avowed Christian socialist leader.
The 444-article proposal is expected to be approved Thursday by the constituent assembly elected to write it. Correa's Alianza Pais party controls more than 60 percent of the 130-member assembly.
If it is passed, the nation's voters will decide Sept. 28 whether to adopt it.
The constitutional rewrite follows the lead of Correa's socialist allies - Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales - in seeking a charter that would let him extend his years in power.
The proposed constitution would enable Correa to run for two new and consecutive four-year terms.
It does not specify when a new Congress would be elected, though a vote is expected early next year. The old Congress was dissolved and replaced provisionally by the constituent assembly.
The new charter would also let Correa dissolve Congress within the first three years of a new four-year term. But he would have to call new elections for his own post at the same time.
The charter would transfer to the president functions currently performed by the independent Central Bank, and some worry that Correa could politicize what has been a watchdog institution tasked with ensuring economic stability.
Though Ecuador's economy is dollar-based, the Central Bank issues financial data and controls how many U.S. dollars are injected into the economy.
"We want a president of a democratic republic, not a monarch in power," former President Lucio Gutierrez told The Associated Press.
The document's less radical brand of socialism - when compared to those of Morales and Chavez - and Correa's popularity should boost its chances of voter approval come the referendum.
Correa's approval rating was 53 percent in a May Cedatos-Gallup poll of 1,216 people that had a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points. But Correa may need to tread carefully.
Many investors were spooked by his move to increase government control of windfall oil profits from 50 percent to 99 percent last year. Ecuador is South America's fifth-largest oil producer.
Also discouraging foreign direct investment, which fell 34 percent in 2007 according to the Central Bank, was the government's suspension this year of all new mining concessions, which practically paralyzed Ecuador's nascent mining industry.
Although the economy grew by less than 3 percent last year, Correa insisted government intervention is necessary to close a wide income gap in this Andean nation of 14 million.
"We believe in the market, in an economic reality," Correa said Tuesday. "It's another thing for the market to be the maximum authority to assign all resources and order all aspects of social life."
Unlike Morales and Chavez, Correa hasn't moved to nationalize businesses such as electric utilities and telecommunications providers.
Marco Morales, a constitutional expert, said the new constitution would weaken checks and balances between the executive and the legislative branches.
"Governance is not about the centralization of power," he said.