Cross death puts Ecuador at a political crossroads
By Fernando Ayala
Corruption has taken over the political agenda of several countries, large and small, in Latin America. From the Rio Grande down to the south of the continent, the last decades have been marked more by money than by principles. Presidents prosecuted, fugitives, arrested, serving sentences. And no end in sight, with some accusations being true, others not so much. That is why nobody is surprised by the disenchantment, in general, of citizens with politicians, and the overall loss of confidence in democracy.
In Ecuador, a new soap opera – or drama – has just begun. We do not know when it will end or how. In a multi-ethnic country, where more than 10 languages are spoken, with the US dollar as national currency and deeply divided between the jungle and the highlands (between “monos y serranos”, as they identify themselves). With a little more than 250,000 square kilometers — about the size of the U.S state of Colorado — and almost 19 million inhabitants.
As of late, President Guillermo Lasso, who completed two years on May 24, has made use (for the first time ever) of a constitutional amendment introduced in 2008 by former president Rafael Correa. Correa, today a fugitive from justice, created this mechanism which allows Lasso to dissolve the National Assembly, controlled by the opposition, which was attempting to remove him from office, and call for general elections. The mechanism is called the “cross death”, due to the mutual annulment of the presidential and legislative power, since both must go to elections. And it could also be qualified as a sort of “presidential suicide”, since the current opposition will probably keep the parliamentary majority, while Lasso has decided not to run for reelection.
The basis of the cross death is Constitutional article 148, which states:
The President or President of the Republic may dissolve the National Assembly when, in his or her judgment, it has arrogated functions that are not constitutionally within its competence, prior favorable opinion of the Constitutional Court; or if it repeatedly and unjustifiably obstructs the execution of the National Development Plan, or due to serious political crisis and internal commotion.
Although opposition sectors claimed circumstances did not warrant the cross death, the Constitution Court ruled against them, allowing the measure to go into force. From his redoubt in Belgium, Correa also objected to the cross death, claiming there was no internal commotion, only the threat of impeachment for Lasso. He took the opportunity, however, to rally his unconditional supporters, estimated at around 20% of voters, to point out that it was necessary to take advantage of the opportunity to “send Lasso and his parliamentarians home”.
In only 11 years, between 1996 and 2007, Ecuador has had seven presidents of the republic. Therefore, former President Rafael Correa, who had managed to grant stability to the country over two constitutional periods (2007-2017), modified the Constitution that had come into force in 2008. By introducing this escape valve, he prevented the military from knocking on the door of the presidential palace in the face of social mobilizations, strikes and street violence that characterized part of the twentieth century.
Ecuador, the country located in the “middle of the world”, was home to leaders and caudillos such as General Eloy Alfaro, twice president and father of the liberal revolution, who inspired the guerrilla movement of the 80’s, “Alfaro Vive, carajo”. And to José María Velasco Ibarra, famous for his oratorial skills, who was elected no less than five times with his famous phrase “Give me a balcony in every city, and I will be President again”.
Ecuador has also been a pioneer in indigenist matters, with the classic novel “Huasipungo”, by Jorge Icaza published in the 30’s, which shook the conscience of Latin America; as well as home to the famous paintings of master Oswaldo Guayasamín (1919-1999). Relations with its southern neighbor, Peru, have not been easy for Ecuador: they fought the last war in South America – the “Condor War” – between January and February 1995, with around 500 dead and where, as in Magical Realism, both countries declared themselves victors.
This is the first time since the current Constitution came into force, that the mechanism of dissolution of the legislative and presidential power is used. President Lasso will govern until December by decree, without opposition, while the Constitutional Court will be his overseer that will be able to approve or reject the projects of the executive until the new Parliament takes office. It is expected to function as a counterweight to the immense power with which the current president will be able to govern. We will witness a political and legal exercise that has rarely been seen in Latin America. Ecuador will put its constitutional and political strengths to the test. With the campaign already underway, most political observers initially believed Correa’s political party, “Citizens Revolution”, has the best chances of winning. However, recent political polls cast that outcome in doubt.
The political picture in Ecuador has changed dramatically in recent years. In last February’s elections to renew mayors and regional prefectures, President Lasso’s government suffered a quantitative and symbolic defeat by losing the cities of Quito and Guayaquil, among many others. His party, CREO (Creando Oportunidades) which in 2019 still controlled 32 mayorships, was reduced to 10. The populist Social Christian Party, which supports business interests, was defeated in the Guayaquil mayoral race for the first time 30 years by the Citizens Revolution candidate.
Surely, former President Rafael Correa, from distant Europe, follows events minute by minute and with the hope of victory for his party. But he has no possibility for himself, personally. At least for now, since it means returning to the political arena due to the eight-year sentence that weighs on him for corruption and bribery during the years of his presidency.
Fernando Ayala is an economist who has held posts as ambassador, Deputy Director of Strategic Affairs and Undersecretary of Defense in Chile.