Ecuadoreans vote on new constitution

By Associated Press Sep 28, 2008, 4:43pm MDT

QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuadoreans on Sunday resoundingly approved a new constitution that would significantly broaden leftist President Rafael Correa’s powers and allow him to run for two more consecutive terms, exit polls showed.

“Three to one!” Correa shouted jubilantly upon hearing the news that at least 66 percent of voters were in favor of the measure.

“We’re making history, onward!” a beaming Correa proclaimed before singing his party’s anthem, “Patria,” in his coastal hometown of Guayaquil, where resistance was expected to be highest but “yes” apparently won.

The Cedatos polling organization said 70 percent of voters backed the new constitution while a second firm, SP, said it won 66 percent approval. First official results were expected late Sunday.

Correa says the Andean nation’s 20th constitution will spur “rapid, profound change,” benefiting the hardworking, humble majority and helping him eradicate a political class that made Ecuador one of Latin America’s most corrupt countries.

While conceding that it’s far from radical compared to similar projects in Venezuela and Bolivia, critics say the new constitution gives Correa far too much control over the economy, as well as the judicial and legislative branches.

Sunday’s vote was a plebiscite on Correa’s nearly two years in power. Beforehand, he said it would decide “the model of society in which we will live.”

In an upper-middle-class district of Quito, Roberto Ona voted “yes” because the new magna carta contains educational and social security guarantees.

“There are good and bad things in this government,” the 21-year-old college student said. “The president is a bit domineering, but we’re not voting for the president but for a new constitution.”

Indeed, the proposed constitution would enshrine social security benefits for stay-at-home mothers and workers in the informal sector, as well as free education for all through university level. Such measures would supplement already-popular Correa programs that provide low-interest micro-loans for small businesses, building-material giveaways for homes and free seeds for growing crops.

Approval of the ballot question will almost certainly lead to presidential, congressional and local elections early next year, and an overhaul of the judiciary in which Correa is expected to play a decisive role.

The Central Bank and other key institutions would also cede or lose autonomy to Correa, a self-avowed Christian socialist who took office in 2007 as this chronically unstable nation’s sixth president in a decade.

Vicente Pazmino, a 53-year-old businessman, said he voted “null” — neither yes nor no — because Correa “wants to be master of this country, and the clauses of this constitution will let him do what he wants.” Voting is obligatory in Ecuador.

Psychologist Daniel Rivas, 42, who voted “no,” called the document “very poetic but not very practical.” He was among Quito voters who wondered how Correa will be able to pay for all his ambitious social programs.

Correa’s critics within a badly splintered and debilitated opposition contend he’s creating a socialist autocracy on the Venezuelan model, aided by high oil prices. A third of the national budget comes from oil revenues.

But while Correa took a page out of Hugo Chavez’s playbook by pushing for a new constitution that would help him consolidate power, he has kept the Venezuelan president at arm’s length.

Venezuela has promised to build a half-billion-dollar oil refinery in Ecuador, South America’s fifth-largest oil producer.

But unlike Bolivia “there isn’t a single Cuban doctor here,” said Ecuadorean political analyst Adrian Bonilla. “Nor do you have Venezuelan advisers.” Nor has Correa moved to nationalize telecommunications and electrical utility companies or vowed to establish closer relations with Russia, as both Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales have.

The new constitution’s 444 articles include such environmental prescriptions as “respect for nature, its maintenance and the regeneration of its vital cycles” and a ban on biopiracy. And it says property should have “a social, environmental and productive function.”

Such clauses strike dread in large landholders, who fear state confiscation though Correa has not threatened such action.

Other clauses upset social conservatives, such as one that recognizes the family “in its diverse types.” And while the charter holds that life “begins with conception,” it also guarantees “the right to freely make responsible and informed decisions about one’s health and reproductive life.”

The Roman Catholic hierarchy of this overwhelmingly Catholic nation complains that those provisions could lead to legal abortion and same-sex unions.

Associated Press writers Gaby Molina, Jeanneth Valdivieso and Gonzalo Solano contributed to this report.