President Rafael Correa secured a massive victory toward rewriting Ecuador's Constitution and weakening the country's unpopular Congress when Ecuadoreans lined up in Sunday's nationwide referendum on whether to back the election of a constituent assembly. In doing so, Mr. Correa joins a growing number of leftist leaders throughout Latin America who are using the popular vote to forge new political paths.
"The future was at stake, the country was at stake, and Ecuadoreans have said 'yes' to that future," said Correa after exit polls showed 78 percent support.
The win was fueled by a frustration with Ecuador's political elite – the same frustration that helped usher Correa, a professor and political outsider, into the presidency in November.
The wide margin will certainly consolidate more power for Correa, a political neophyte viewed by many as an idealist who has successfully wooed the poor. But critics warn that he'll follow in the footsteps of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez by using his mandate to stifle opposition.
"It's another in the steps toward attempting to create an alternative model of development to the neo-liberal consensus that has dominated [Latin America] in the past couple decades," says Ernesto Capello, an assistant professor of Latin American history at the University of Vermont. "As in Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua, Brazil, and so on, Ecuador is going through a period of intense repudiation of the policies of this era."
If Ecuador's Supreme Electoral Tribunal approves Sunday's referendum, as expected, on April 24, elections for the 130 assembly representatives will take place in August. The assembly would then begin its work in mid-September, and have 180 days to create a new constitution. Approval of assembly decisions will require an absolute majority, or 66 votes. Ecuadoreans can anticipate voting on a new constitution by mid-2008.
While the route that Correa takes will ultimately be determined by the new Constitution, and the degree to which it empowers him as president, his detractors say he is merely following leaders such as Chávez and Bolivia's President Evo Morales, both of whom called for referendums to rewrite their constitutions shortly after taking office.
In Venezuela, whose assembly was overwhelmingly filled with Chávez supporters, the constitution was changed to widen Chávez's powers and lengthen his potential time in office. The document expanded the rights of minorities as it also sought to break up the political stranglehold that the elite had on the country, but it also reduced civilian control of the army while increasing the state's role in managing the economy.
Bolivia's constituent assembly has been stalled by in-fighting from a powerful opposition that is expected to curtail the direction that Morales and his supporters desire in a constitution, which is to be drawn up by this summer.
"The temptation [for Correa] to go the Chavista route will be great, particularly due to Correa's stated desire to effect broad change," says Mr. Capello. "As Chávez and others have proven, it is possible to more rapidly effect great social change if one circumvents the restrictions of representative democratic institutions."
Carlos Larreátegui, head of Ecuador's Christian Democrat Union (UDC), voted against the referendum. "There isn't a reform agenda," he says. "Rather, this is an instrument for the concentration of power, as happened in Venezuela. Changes need to be made in Ecuador, but the Constitution does not need to be changed."
Despite comparisons to Chavez, however, analysts point out that Correa will have a much harder time consolidating power, due to less oil money and a more formidable political opposition.
Vote boosts Correa's mandate
In many ways, Sunday's vote was a referendum on Correa's popularity. The president, who during his campaign promised to close down a US military base in Ecuador, dismissed free trade talks with the US, and called the current political establishment a group of "political mafias," has enjoyed over a 70 percent approval rating.
Says Polibio Cordova, the head of the Cedatos-Gallup polling firm: "The population rejects the 'politqueria,' " a term combining the word "politics" and the Spanish word for "garbage." "Correa says that after the Assembly, there will be no more 'politqueria' in Ecuador."
That is why Margarita Romero voted "yes" to the referendum. "I don't know if they will fulfill their promises," she says. "Correa might be like Chávez. But the congressional representatives don't do anything, they steal our money. They are earning on the backs of the people, and the poor don't get any help from anyone."
Whether this new chapter in brings real change is the question now. Correa has offered little detail on how he'll root out corruption.
"Most of the people don't know what the referendum is about," says Adrian Bonilla, a political analyst at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito. They don't know the rules of the assembly, or what is going to happen."
In the short term, the vote could ease the politics of confrontation between Correa's government and its opposition, which would be a welcome development in a country that has seen eight presidents in 10 years.
But in the long term, says Bonilla, the country still has weak institutions that must be strengthened if stability is to be achieved, he says. "Throughout Latin America, constitutional assemblies have not resolved the issues they are meant to address, except in the cases where there is a previous consolidation of political wills, and a social pact, as in Colombia and Brazil," he says. "In Ecuadorian society the authoritarian temptations are always present."