Monday, September 29, 2008

Ecuador votes on new powers for Leftist President Rafael Correa

President Rafael Correa was expected to cement his Leftist rule for the next decade as Ecuadorians voted on Sunday on a new constitution that will dramatically expand his powers.

The rewritten constitution gives the 45-year-old US-educated economist, a key ally of socialist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, more power to regulate the economy and increase spending on health and education.

"Ecuador needs a profound, radical and quick change, a citizens' revolution", said Mr Correa, insisting the new constitution is the only way to avoid further civil strife, political instability and inequality in a country that has had five presidents in the last decade, with none completing a full term in office.

The new constitution ensures that those who work in the home are eligible for social security, grants free healthcare to the elderly, gives fathers the right to paternity leave, ends military conscription, lowers the voting age to 16 and allows soldiers and police the right to vote for the first time.

"Now we are going to have a system that favours the poor, instead of stacking the cards against us and giving all the privileges to the rich," said student Amalia Torres, 23, as she queued to vote in the capital Quito.

However, President Correa has challenged the power of the Catholic Church by granting same-sex unions the same rights as heterosexual marriages and loosening laws on abortion. Senior clergy have cautioned against the reforms, prompting the government to demand that the Catholic Church stop interfering in politics.

The opposition insists that Mr Correa plans to suppress free speech and perpetuate himself in power.

The changes will radically strengthen the powers of the presidency, allowing Mr Correa to appoint senior members of the judiciary, supplant the central bank, expropriate assets "in the national interest" and stand for re-election, something previously banned, meaning he could govern until 2017.

"What is in play here is that presidential powers will be much wider," said analyst Jorge Leon Trujillo from Quito. "With the excuse of establishing order and stability, the constitution is giving great power to the Executive."

Polls suggest Ecuadorians are not overly alarmed by opposition accusations, however, and believe the new constitution will mark a positive step in one of the most politically unstable nations in the region. Surveys suggested that the changes will be approved by between 55 and 60 percent of voters. A simple majority is all that is needed to turn the new constitution into law.

Mr Correa is following a path pioneered by Mr Chavez, who introduced a new constitution in 1999. Another ally, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, is also seeking to so the same, although violence, widespread protests and fears of separatism are sabotaging his efforts to get radical reforms approved.

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