Back in February, when Rafael Correa was re-elected to his second full term in office –in 2006, he had been elected to a two-year term before the constitution was changed to allow a president two full terms– he dedicated his victory to Hugo Chavez, saying that the Venezuelan leader was a sincere man whom he “admired a lot.”
Only a few months since the election have passed. But Correa’s political allies are now proposing a law that would eliminate term limits for Ecuador’s president, the same move Chavez took in Venezuela back in 2009.
The proposal, which was unveiled earlier this week, arose out of a savvy political stunt by Correa’s partisans in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and a bastion of support for that country’s beleaguered opposition (which got only 22 percent of the vote in the last presidential contest).
The mayor of Guayaquil, who belongs to an opposition party, is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office. So Correa operatives challenged him to sign a public deal in which both sides would vow to end term limits on all elected offices in the country, so that Ecuadorean voters would have “no restrictions” when they pick their leaders.
Opposition politicians said that the move was a cheap shot, aimed at undermining the mayor’s re-election campaign.
Correa has said on previous occasions that he isn’t interested in seeking more time in office after his current term ends in 2017. Correa, who went to college in Europe and the U.S., says 10 years will be enough and that he and his Belgium-born wife want to spend more time at thier home near Brussels.
But a new law that wipes out term limits could give him plenty of time to change his mind.
Many Correa supporters believe that another term would give him time to finish many of the ambitious infrastructure, educational and welfare projects his administration has begun. Indeed, there are more public works projects underway than at any time in the country’s history. Fundamantal changes to the educational and health care systems are also in progress.
Other Ecuadorians worry, however, that Correa has already gathered too much power in his hands by building up a state-owned media empire that responds to his interests, going after media critics with multi-million dollar lawsuits, and interfering in the country’s judiciary.
If he does decide to seek another term, it is doubtful anyone could defeat him. In a recent poll, 86% gave Correa favorable ratings, the highest of any leader in Latin America.
The move to eliminate term limits has raised alarm throughout Latin America, a region that bears painful recent memories of lengthy and oppressive dictatorial regimes.
Some of those fears are reflected in the comments sent to a recent CNN en Español show that talked about Ecuador’s term-limit issue.
“Forget unlimited reelection. That’s what Chavez did and look at where Venezuela is now,” user Maria Alejandra Hernandez wrote on the facebook page of the CNN show Conclusiones.
“Unlimited re-election goes against democracy,” another Facebook user said.
Supporters of Correa would argue, of course, that it is up to Ecuador to choose whether it wants no term limits.
Many Ecuadorians feel that under Correa’s charismatic, larger-than-life leadership, the country has enjoyed an unprecedented period of political stability. High oil prices and generous investment in social programs have also helped to reduce poverty, while the middle class has benefited from a spike in government jobs. And as The Economist pointed out recently, Correa is no clone of Chavez. He has imposed some price controls on basic goods, but he’s generally provided more economic freedoms and has avoided the former Venezuelan president’s zeal for nationalizing many industries.
But even if a president is doing a decent job, isn’t it dangerous to have one man leading a nation for too long?
Carlos de la Torre, an Ecuadorian political scientist, thinks that there should be limits to any politician’s tenure, because power sharing is essential to democracy. In a phone interview, he said that Ecuador’s current economic setup has gotten millions of voters accustomed to government handouts, and with Correa controlling that, he could end up in office for as long as high oil prices continue to replenish the government’s coffers.
De la Torre believes that Correa will eventually seek more presidential terms, because Ecuador’s courts won’t stop him from doing it, and because he is not a traditional politician, but a populist leader who feels that he is on a “historical mission.”
“In his speeches, Correa portays himself as the heir to our independence heroes, and describes himself as someone who is leading the country to a second independence,” De la Torre said. “His movement wants to erase everything, from the constitution, to the media, and remake it again, and it is going to take them a long time to do this.”
Credit: By Manuel Rueda, ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com; photo caption: President Rafael Correa