President Rafael Correa fulfilled a campaign promise he made two years ago to change the constitution as Ecuadorian voters overwhelmingly approved the new charter. The 444-article document received 65% of the votes in a campaign highlighted by strong Catholic church opposition.
The church contended that the constitution was “soft” on abortion and protested the legalization of same-sex civil unions.
The powerful “yes” vote provides Correa momentum to promote the social and economic agenda that he has pushed since his election in 2005. The new constitution gives him expanded authority to regulate the economy and provides the possibility that he may remain in office for nine more years. The old constitution did not allow presidents to succeed themselves.
The new constitution, which recognizes a broad range of human and environmental rights, was supported not just by Ecuador’s poor, which constitute about 45% of the population, but by a large percentage of the middle class as well. A number of opponents of the constitution said they were surprised by the depth of support that the Correa received from voters. One of the president's most vocal critics, Vladimiro Alvarez, said he was stunned by the vote. Alvarez, who has called Correa a "bigot and a totalitarian" conceded that he had misjudged the voters. Preliminary returns showed that the more skeptical voters of Guayas province voted in favor of the constitution.
More than anything, the victory reflects long-held resentment toward Ecuador’s traditional political class and hopes that Correa, an American-educated economist, can broaden the reach of anti-poverty programs. Economic conditions have prompted more than 15% of the population to emigrate. Recent estimates claim there are as many as 2 million living in the U.S.
Correa faced less opposition to constitutional changes than other leftist leaders in Latin America have, partly because his measures were considered less radical than overhauls in Venezuela, where voters rejected a proposal in December, and Bolivia, where the opposition is chafing at a proposed charter.
Although he has maintained ties to Venezuela, Correa has also kept its president, Hugo Chavez, at arm’s length during constitutional campaign, refusing large contributions of Venezuelan aid while showing an independent streak that has put him at odds with the hemisphere’s largest countries, the United States and Brazil.
For instance, a ban on foreign military bases drafted into the Constitution effectively expels the American military from the coastal city of Manta, where it keeps a fleet of antidrug surveillance aircraft. The U.S. base will remain operational until it's lease expires in 2010.
The new Constitution hands even greater power over economic policy to Correa. Monetary policy shifts to the executive from the central bank, and while private property is protected, the government gains more expropriation powers on large, unused industrial facilities.
Photo: Correa celebrates constitution victory in Guayaquil (phone credit: El Tiempo)