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Ecuador: Can President Correa's popularity keep him in office indefinitely?

Correa's approval ratings float between 70 and 80 percent, making him Latin America’s most popular leader. But when it comes to keeping him in office beyond 2016, most believe it should come down to a vote - not a constitutional change.

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    Ecuador's President Rafael Correa waits for the arrival of a visiting dignitary at the entrance of the government palace in Quito, Ecuador, Nov. 10, 2014.
    AP/Dolores Ochoa
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A meme circulating on social media features a portrait of Ecuador’s controversial president, Rafael Correa, winking at the camera. The image is split down the middle, with one half reading "before" and the other "after." 

In the before section, he’s quoted in November 2007, soon after he was first elected, saying, “indefinite reelections are absurd, because democracy requires a rotation in leadership.”

But on the "after" side is a quote from a speech he gave in June 2014: “Rotation of leadership is a bourgeois discourse that no one believes anymore. It’s a myth.”

A recent vote from Ecuador’s Constitutional Court partially cleared Correa’s path for indefinite reelection, and it appears he’s poised to stay in power beyond 2016. The National Assembly has until October 2015 to decide whether the issue should go up for a vote, or whether it can be resolved through a constitutional amendment – a contentious subject that it is expected to debate this week. Correa’s seven years of social spending have won him an approval rating that hovers between an unprecedented 70 and 80 percent, making him Latin America’s most popular leader. But some worry the charismatic president is taking constitutional changes too far, threatening Ecuador’s robust democracy.

“Voters should have the option of electing their government leaders indefinitely,” said Correa in May, arguing that indefinite reelections do not translate to power-grabbing. “The Ecuadorean people should have the freedom to decide whether they want continuity or a rotation in leadership.”

Lasting legacy

Correa first took office in 2007, the same year his late friend Hugo Chávez of Venezuela pushed for a referendum to amend Venezuela’s Constitution to lift election limits. Reform was needed, then-President Chávez argued, to implement his socialist revolution.

Correa is framing indefinite reelection in a similar way, calling it an opportunity to continue his social programs. Since taking office, he’s aggressively tried to build a lasting legacy – using Ecuador’s oil profits to fund new infrastructure (he's built more than 5,000 miles of new roads), to invest in scientific and technological research through Latin America’s largest technological park, as well as to subsidize a massive overhaul of educational institutions and teacher training.

At least 113,000 new jobs have been added to the public sector since 2007, and a running joke here hints at the need for a new ministry that can bring the nation’s bulging bureaucracy under control. Ecuador has 28 ministries, compared with an average of 19 government ministries in South American countries.

According to government figures, poverty rates in Ecuador have gone down considerably under Correa's leadership: From 37 percent of the population living on less than a dollar a day in 2007 to 24 percent today.

But for Correa’s critics, his legacy doesn’t just translate to expanded state investment and control over the economy. Maria Paula Romo, a law professor at the International University of Ecuador and a former member of Correa’s leftist coalition in the National Assembly, accuses Correa of becoming increasingly authoritarian.

“Since his first constitutional reforms in 2011, he keeps influencing the courts, law enforcement, and the media,” Ms. Romo says. She says that he has reorganized the police to centralize them and purge any likely dissenters, created a law that regulates media content while expanding the state media apparatus, and reshuffled the courts throughout the country, appointing new judges to his liking. 

An uphill battle?

Ecuadorean economist and political analyst Gabriela Calderón says the national economy has blossomed under Correa — but that his social programs would not have been possible without a boom in oil prices that peaked in 2006.  

With falling oil prices, Ms. Calderón says public investment may have to drop, too. “Next year’s government deficit is expected to be as big as its spending,” Calderón says.

Despite the president's overall popularity, a recent national poll found that 73 percent of Ecuadoreans believe Correa’s reelection should be settled by a popular vote instead of a constitutional amendment.

Guillermo Lasso, a businessman and politician with the political party Movimiento CREO, is expected to run against Correa for the second time in 2017, and he believes the reelection issue is controversial enough to make it to the polls. 

Mr. Lasso and his allies have to gather nearly 600,000 signatures to challenge the recent ruling that partially paves the way for indefinite reelection. They have an uphill battle ahead of them: 100 out of 120 members of Ecuador’s national assembly are aligned with Correa’s party. That means that even if they rally the signatures, the assembly could push the amendment through nonetheless. 

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