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Nebot’s national referendum could transform government and appears certain to pass

By Liam Higgins

Although Jaime Nebot is no longer a candidate for president, his new project could have far more impact on Ecuador’s government than one or two terms in office. The public referendum he and his supporters have worked on for months would put constitutional restrictions on how public funds are spent, limit public debt and deliver draconian justice to those convicted of corruption.

Jaime Nebot

Nebot announced last week he would not be on the February presidential ballot, citing “political fatigue,” disgust with current political affairs and the need to spend more time with his family. At the same time, he said he would work full-time on his referendum.

“His timing could not be better,” says Jonathan Ortiz, former advisor to two presidents and now a lecturer at San Francisco University in Quito. “First, the next president will face almost insurmountable problems and it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting the job. Second, with the recent news of more corruption cases and the terrible impact of the coronavirus, it appears the referendum will receive overwhelming approval. In a sense, he will be able to impose his centrist presidential agenda without having to be president.”

Nebot says his initiative is non-partisan and crosses political and social lines that have not been crossed in the past.  “That has always been the problem in Ecuador, the inability to bring people together for the common good,” he says. “This effort is not left or the right, it is not meant to divide, and my ideology is one of openness and prosperity that benefits all Ecuadorians. I have met with hundreds of people, farmers, fishermen, ranchers, miners, educators, transporters, professionals, retirees, migrants, mayors and prefects. I explain that what we are doing will benefit everyone and they all want to help.”

Although Nebot has not disclosed all the issues that will be included in the referendum, he says improving the accountability of government and how it operates is at the top of the list. “We will require the government to work within its means,” he says. “The ability to borrow money will be limited to emergencies and budgets will be balanced. No deviation from this will be allowed.”

Among other provisions are requirements that government employees and contractors be paid within 30 days. “We will also mandate that local governments receive their disbursements on time. Only last week, the government was sending the money it owed from March to the municipalities and prefecturas. This is almost criminal given the circumstances of Covid when they desperately need the money to provide basic services.”

The referendum will include language to protect the Social Security system. “The funds that go into the system will be untouchable by the government and the government will pay what it owes into the system in a timely fashion,” Nebot says. “We will make this a constitutional requirement. I can’t think of a more important commitment to the people of Ecuador than providing good health care and reliable pensions, especially when they are paying for it.”

In addition, there will be provisions to increase penalties for the most serious crimes and those who are convicted of corruption will face long, unreviewable prison sentences. There will also be provisions to provide more support to businesses, including low interest loans and a reduction in restrictions, and new, more transparent guidelines to allow or prohibit mining and oil exploration in the country.

Although Nebot says he would prefer the referendum to go to voters in a stand-alone election, he says it may be necessary to include it with the February national election. “Because of the virus we may need to consolidate the elections to protect public health.”

According to Ortiz, the “devil is in the details” that are yet to be announced. “We should see the proposed questions by August, before they go to the constitutional court for review. What we understand at this point is Nebot’s intention is to put constitutional constraints on presidents and the National Assembly and to lock up the bad guys and throw away the key — things I predict will play very well with voters.”