Supporters of a national referendum on oil drilling in the Yasuní national park are calling a preliminary government rejection of almost 500,000 out of 757,000 voter signatures an “assault on democracy.”
The official announcement from the National Electoral Council (CNE) is expected today.
In a Tuesday news conference, the president of CNE said that only 359,761 signatures of the 757,000 that were submitted by a coalition opposed to the oil activity passed the validation process. The law required 584,000 signatures, equivalent to 5% of the electorate, to force a referendum on the issue.
The announcement appears to be a victory for President Rafael Correa and his plans to drill for oil in an area known as the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini, or the ITT block. A portion of the block is located in the Yasuni national park, which is considered by scientists to be one of the most biologically diverse spots in the world.
The president of the electoral council, Domingo Paredes, said during a news conference that authorities found several irregularities during the validation process, including forged signatures. Paredes said the signatures were examined by experts from the Ecuadorean police and other offices. The council said that it hadn’t ruled out launching legal proceedings over the allegedly forged signatures.
Natalia Greene, a member of the coalition that submitted the signatures, said that the electoral council hadn’t officially notified the group of the specific reasons for rejecting the signatures.
The coalition, known as the Yasunidos, also alleged fraud in the process, but pointed the finger for the alleged abuse at the government, claiming it hijacked the validation process to avoid a referendum. The group called for its supporters to appeal the electoral report.
Greene said the coalition will appeal the results at national and international courts. “Once again it has been shown that in the country there is no separation of powers,” Ms. Greene said. “For us, this process has just begun, it is not done yet.”
“We have scanned copies of each of the forms with the signatures submitted and will enforce our rights to show the truth,” she added.
The electoral council is expected to meet Wednesday to review the legal report and to make the official announcement on the referendum.
The Yasunidos coalition handed the Electoral Council 110,000 forms containing 756,000 signatures, asking for a referendum on whether the government should leave the crude oil at the ITT block underground indefinitely.
The Yasnidos coalition had earlier raised concerns about irregularities during the process to validate the signatures. It denounced the elimination of thousands of signatures by authorities over issues like the size of the paper that the signature forms were printed on.
In October, the Ecuadorean National Assembly declared oil development of ITT in the national interest after a request from President Correa, who in August gave up on his initiative to leave the ITT block untouched if the international community came up with $3.6 billion in compensation. Correa’s initiative, which was launched in 2007, brought in just $13.3 million.
The ITT block holds an estimated 900 million barrels of crude, equivalent to about 20% of Ecuador’s oil reserves.
Ecuador’s economy is heavily dependent on the oil sector. The country is the smallest OPEC member and currently produces about 550,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
In an article published before Tuesday decision, the government-run newspaper El Telegrafo said an opinion poll indicated 72 percent of Ecuadorans support holding a referendum on the oil project.
Photo caption: A Quito protester against the government’s plan to drill for oil in the Yasuní national park.