September 27, 2008
QUITO, Ecuador -- Voters are expected to easily approve this chronically unstable nation's 20th constitution on Sunday, expanding President Rafael Correa's powers and letting the pugnacious leftist run for two more consecutive terms.
The U.S.- and European-trained economist has staked everything on the constitutional rewrite that, while far from radical compared to similar projects in Venezuela and Bolivia, would let Correa firmly elbow aside what remains of a badly splintered, discredited opposition.
"This election is between two worlds, two systems, two completely different notions of economic development," the fiery-tongued Correa told a crowd of 8,000 attending his final pre-referendum rally in the coastal city of Guayaquil.
He promised a "yes" vote would bring "rapid, profound change." Approval would automatically lead to presidential, congressional and local elections early next year, and an overhaul of the nation's judiciary in which Correa is expected to play a decisive role. The Central Bank and other key institutions would also cede or lose autonomy.
Opinion surveys indicate Correa will win comfortably, though about one in five voters was undecided.
"What we're going to have with this constitution is a concentration of power in the executive and very few checks and balances," said political scientist Adrian Bonilla. Already, he said, Correa wields "more power than any other (Ecuadoran) president in modern times."
Correa, 45, is bent on demolishing a traditionally corrupt political class and distributing wealth more equitably. Since taking office in January 2007, he has been in perpetual campaign mode _ incessantly hauling Cabinet members to remote villages and dominating the airwaves.
The president is a self-avowed Christian socialist who portrays himself as liberation theology in action.
Just don't cross him. His short temper has burned through more than a dozen Cabinet appointees, including four finance ministers, the last of whom he accused of failing to purge her ministry of "hungry wolves" who sought to impede his spending plan.
"If the new constitution passes, there will be an increased risk of repression, the persecution of all people who think differently from the president," predicted Lucio Gutierrez, Ecuador's president from 2002-05. "Poverty is going to increase. Nobody is going to want to invest in Ecuador. Corruption will increase."
He called Correa an acolyte of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez.
Unlike Bolivia's Evo Morales, however, Correa has kept Chavez at arm's length.
True, Venezuela has promised to build a half-billion-dollar oil refinery for Ecuador's 14 million people, but unlike Bolivia "there isn't a single Cuban doctor here," said Bonilla, the political analyst. "Nor do you have Venezuelan advisers."
Nor has Correa moved to nationalize telecommunications and electrical utility companies or expelled a U.S. ambassador, as Chavez and Morales have.
The proposed constitution was approved in July by an assembly dominated by Correa supporters that supplanted the old Congress.
The document would let Correa run for two more four-year terms, meaning he might run Ecuador through 2017. Correa would also be empowered to dissolve Congress _ though he'd have to call new elections for his own post as well.
South America's fifth-largest oil producer, Ecuador funds a third of its national budget with revenues from crude sales. Foreign investment was down 34 percent last year, however, with many investors spooked by Correa's move to increase government control of windfall oil profits.
So while the current turmoil on Wall Street has hurt neighboring countries, its effect on Ecuador has thus far been minimal. And with oil above US$100 a barrel, Correa has been able to provide a slew of social benefits in a country where about 38 percent live in poverty.
The new constitution would grant social security benefits to stay-at-home mothers and workers in the informal sector, expanding on popular programs such as low-interest microloans for small businesses, giveaways of building material for home building and seeds for growing crops.
Some 1.2 million single mothers already get US$30 a month, and Correa says he'll boost the benefit to US$50 a month if the new constitution wins. It is among reasons the women who run the kitchen at a state-run child care center said they were voting "yes."
Cook Sandra Cardenas, a 32-year-old mother of three, earns US$120 a month and her husband earns US$350 more as an alarm company systems monitor. They are hoping for a government home loan.
"He has delivered on his promises," Cardenas said of the president. "He hasn't been supported by the millionaires of this country who are always taking the money, but instead by the real people, who suffer and are poorly paid."
Associated Press writers Jeanneth Valdivieso and Gonzalo Solano contributed to this report.