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Ecuador considers new constitution

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2009-02-11

On Sunday Ecuador will hold a national referendum to adopt or reject a new constitution. In a country familiar with political instability, the outcome of the vote could have sweeping implications for the government of President Rafael Correa.

A referendum vote on Sunday will decide if Ecuador adopts a new constitution—crafted by the left-leaning government of President Rafael Correa—or preserves the existing one.  But in a country where presidents have fallen out of favor, and power, with relative ease, there is much more at stake in the vote than the text under consideration.


The likely victory of the ‘Yes’ campaign, and approval of the new constitution, would bring to fruition a prolonged national political project—an uncommon event in Ecuador.  The small, South American country has become notorious for being ungovernable. The standing constitution is only 10 years old, and during that time, five different presidents have held office.


President Rafael Correa, ideologically positioned somewhere between the left of Venezuela’s Chavez and Chile’s Bachelet, is poised to succeed in his promise to bring about profound yet peaceful changes to the country. But the ‘No’ campaign has made significant gains, and a small margin of victory is now expected.


A citizen’s revolution


Virtually unknown at the start of Ecuador’s 2006 presidential elections, Rafael Correa won on a platform that echoed the string of victories for the political left in Latin America. At the core of his campaign was the call for a ‘citizens’ revolution’, by rewriting the constitution and dissolving the Ecuadorian National Congress.


In April 2007, a first referendum calling for a Constituent Assembly won an overwhelming 80 percent of all votes. Correa’s Acuerdo Pais party would later win 80 of the 130 available seats, a result uncontested by the opposition. The president’s popularity, transferred to his delegates, assured him a safe majority to establish the assembly’s agenda and assure the outcome of any proposition put to a vote.


After eight months of work, the 444-article draft constitution was approved by the Ecuadorian Constituent Assembly in late July, and a referendum vote was called for September 28.


Ecuador’s political right has struggled for years to present a convincing front to the electorate, but has held onto important pockets of power, especially in Ecuador’s coastal region. Jaime Nebot, the Christian Socialist Party (PSC) leader and immensely popular mayor of the country’s largest city, Guayaquil, is the only opposition figure considered a serious contender to Correa.


The Church votes ‘No’


Nebot attempted to disqualify the Assembly throughout its duration, and since July has led the ‘No’ campaign, branding the draft constitution communist and centralist.  Although these labels find a responsive audience among the country’s oligarchy and Guayaquil’s businessmen, they are uninspiring to the general population and easily dismissed as the usual PSC diatribe by intellectuals. However, the ‘No’ campaign received a real boost when the Catholic Bishops Conference pronounced themselves against the new constitution.


The bishops said certain articles put in danger the “non-negotiable” subjects of “abortion, family, education and religious freedom.” Most outspoken among the bishops has been Guayaquil’s Archbishop Antonio Arregui, who has taken center stage in the ‘No’ campaign.


Arregui and the other bishops have focused their discord on articles 44 and 66 in particular. The latter, they say, legalizes abortion when it gives women the right to decide “how many children to have and when to have them.”


Jeannette Sanchez, Ecuador’s Economic and Social Inclusion Minister, admits that the bishops’ moralist arguments have hurt the ‘Yes’ campaign, and told FRANCE 24 that the church hierarchy has taken a very narrow view of this “vanguard” text.


“The new constitution represents a leap forward in guaranteeing not only civic, political and social rights, but also recognizing economic and ecological rights in a legal context,” says Sanchez.  “It is a comprehensive system of protections, covering the right to a free education, the right to housing, as well as universal rights which includes the protection of all religious credos, and even access to culture.”


The young and charismatic Rafael Correa, himself a practicing Catholic, still enjoys wide popularity in Ecuador, although he has lost many allies in the last two years—especially among a more radical left that looks to Caracas and La Paz as examples to follow.


Government appointees like Sanchez, as well as the Assembly delegates, have mobilized fervently for the ‘Yes’ campaign. They are trying to convince an increasingly disenchanted left and an increasingly skeptical middle-class that their constitutional project is still a better choice than the conservatism that has bogged down the country.


A polarized country


Anastasio Gallego, dean of the Universidad Santa Maria, a private technical university in Guayaquil, told FRANCE 24 that the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns have become so polarized that the referendum is no longer about the merits or weaknesses of the constitution itself, but a contest to assert or disqualify Correa’s government.


“There is no real political opposition to the text. Each of the campaigns has rallied around these individuals, Correa on the ‘Yes’ side and Nebot and Arregui on the ‘No’ side.  Almost any discussion about the constitution quickly descends into a volley of attacks on these people.”


The outcome of the referendum hinges less on the ‘Yes’ campaign’s ability to convince voters the new constitution is a document vital to the country’s progress, and more on Correa’s ability to maintain a majority of poor Ecuadorians’ confidence. “A Yes outcome will be understood foremost as a personal triumph for Correa,” says Gallego.  If the ‘No’ pulls off a surprise win on Sunday, Correa will have lost his momentum, and in a country with little tolerance for political lulls, the young president may face the same fate as his predecessors.


Date created : 2008-09-26