Rafael Correa’s referendum verdict

Britons who thought their referendum on the alternative vote was complicated, should spare a thought for the Ecuadorean electorate. When voters go to the polls in Ecuador this Saturday, they will be given a ballot paper with ten questions, some of which are so complicated they require annexes with explanatory notes. The referendum includes proposals on judicial reform, media regulation, prisoners’ rights and casinos.

The leftwing president, Rafael Correa, says he wants a mandate to press ahead with reforms that have been held up by powerful interests, but opponents see it as an attempt to concentrate more power in his hands. Above all, the results will test the popularity of a president, who was elected on a surge of popular support, but who has since alienated many of his erstwhile allies in the indigenous and environmental movements.

Ecuador is part of the leftwing block of countries in Latin America, which also includes Venezuela and Bolivia. Like those countries, Ecuador’s government has sought to impose tougher conditions on foreign companies extracting oil and funnel the money into social projects. Poverty and unemployment have both fallen under Correa. A left-leaning nationalist, he ordered the United States to remove its military base from Ecuador, joking that the Pentagon could remain only if Ecuador were allowed a military base in New York. He also threatened to default on foreign debt, but in a canny move, the president, an economist trained in Belgium and the US, bought back the bonds when the price fell.

In an innovative environmental deal, Correa has asked foreign governments to pay Ecuador not to extract oil from an area of the Amazon. But his attempts to press ahead with mining projects in other areas, as well as a controversial new law on water rights, have brought him into conflict with the country’s main indigenous movements. His heavyhanded use of the security forces against protesters has been widely criticised.

Ecuador has had a wave of elections since Correa came to power and this will be his sixth electoral contest. Soon after coming to office in 2006, a constituent assembly was elected and a new constitution written. Many of the key questions in Saturday’s referendum are already in the constitution but have not been implemented because of fractional infighting and the sheer unwieldiness of the task. In an idealistic move, the constituent assembly set up a Council for Citizens’ Participation, which was charged with appointing all of the judicial and administrative posts in the country, including the attorney general, the national auditor, the ombudsman and banking regulator. Each post was to be open to competition from applicants from home and abroad. Virtually none of the posts have been filled.

Now, the government wants to speed up the process and establish a three-person board (from the executive, the legislative and civil society) to appoint the most important judicial body in the land. Critics say that this will allow the government to control the appointment of judges, but Correa says he wants to end the paralysis and overhaul Ecuador’s corrupt and inefficient judicial system. Other controversial proposals include preventing the owners of newspapers, television and radio stations from also owning major stakes in banks or non-media companies, and the drafting of laws to regulate the media. A proposal to extend the length of time that prisoners can be held on remand without trial has provoked criticism from left and right, but may be popular with the voters sick of the high crime rate. A less populist proposal is the banning of games that end in the death of an animal – a measure that would outlaw bullfighting (but exclude cockfighting).

Analysing the results from this ragbag of questions will not be easy, since voters can vote yes to some and no to others. But many Ecuadoreans will not look at the details, but use the opportunity to cast their verdict on Correa himself. A resounding yes for most questions will enhance his political prestige and ability to push reforms through congress. Conversely, too many no votes will severely dent his credibility.

By Grace Livingstone, the author of the book America’s Backyard: the US and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror.

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