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President for Life? It Will Be Possible in Ecuador in 2021

Violent protests greeted a constitutional amendment that will force President Rafael Correa to sit out the 2017 election but could allow the charismatic leftist to resume his grip on power indefinitely from 2021.
Photo by Julie Jacobsen/AP

Ecuador's national legislature has approved a constitutional amendment that will force President Rafael Correa to sit out the 2017 election but could allow the charismatic leftist to resume his grip on power indefinitely from 2021.

The vote on Thursday sparked protests outside the legislature in the capital, Quito, by opponents who regard the abrasive leader as a threat to democracy because of his track record of harassing critics and concentrating power in his own hands.


Some of the demonstrators used sticks and stones to attack the police, who dispersed them with tear gas and mounted riot officers. The interior ministry reported 13 police officers injured.

Photo by Dolores Ochoa/AP

The amendment removing term limits for public officials from the 2021 election was among a package of 15 constitutional changes passed by the legislature — that is dominated by Correa's Country Alliance party — by 100 votes to eight.

Correa responded in typically robust style to the demonstrations, singling out various groups that have long opposed his government including indigenous activists, unions, business leaders and the media.

"We may make mistakes," he tweeted from Paris, where he is attending the UN climate summit. "But in Ecuador the Ecuadorean people will rule, not mixed-race [people] disguised as indigenous, labor leaders from the XIX century, talentless populist bankers, dishonest journalists."

Related: Ecuador's President Wants to Tax Inheritances by as Much as 77 Percent, Sparking Protests

Reelection remains a touchy issue in much of Latin America, thanks to the region's long history of corrupt leaders entrenching themselves in power. Many countries sought to address this phenomenon with 20th century constitutions that limit presidents to a single term, or force them to sit out a term before running again.

Correa — who has already been re-elected once, in 2013, after pushing through a new constitution — is the latest in a series of Latin American leaders who have rewritten election rules in ways that could extend their hold on power.


The Ecuadorean president's left wing allies in Nicaragua and Venezuela have engineered similar reforms since the turn of the millennium. Bolivia could now be heading that way. Conservative presidents who've promoted similar amendments include Colombia's Alvaro Uribe, as well as Peru's Alberto Fujimori (who is now in jail), a little earlier in the 1990s.

Related: Bolivian President Evo Morales Wants Fourth Crack at the Job

Other controversial measures in the package approved on Thursday in Ecuador include one that defines the media as a "public service."

Opponents fear that wording will allow Correa's government to further silence critical journalists. The president has long targeted independent media, haranguing reporters by name during his televised speeches, fining newspapers, and suing journalists in courts that rights groups say are under the president's thumb.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both accuse Correa of bullying independent journalists and criminalizing peaceful protestors. Reporters Without Borders has said that critical media in Ecuador suffer "pronounced official harassment."

But Correa argues that the media amendment will democratize journalism and undercut the power of private media empires that have failed to represent the poor.

Fundamedios, a Quito-based journalism think-tank that the Correa administration recently tried to shut down, issued a statement warning of a possible attempt by the government "to take control of a system of media that already faces the consequences of disproportionate state power."


Related: Ecuador Going After 'Ink Assassin' Over Controversial Political Cartoon

A third questioned reform allows the armed forces to patrol the streets even without a state of emergency, drawing accusations of militarizing the country.

Correa's critics argue that the constitutional reform package is essentially a presidential power play and should be put to a national referendum rather than a vote in the assembly.

First elected in 2007, Correa quickly came to dominate Ecuadorean politics, bringing badly needed stability to a nation that had seen five presidents come and go in the previous decade.

He cemented his popularity by overhauling the creaking public education system and a police force widely viewed as hopelessly corrupt. He also made international headlines by offering asylum to fugitive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Ecuador's London Embassy.

But Ecuador's economy has been struggling recently with the plunging price of one of its principal exports, oil. That has seen Correa raise taxes and take a dent in his approval ratings, which have fallen from around 80 percent to the low 50s.

Guillermo Lasso, the banker who came second to Correa in the 2013 election — by 23 percent to 57 percent — warned in an open letter that the reforms had placed the media under state control and militarized the country "as though we citizens were enemies of the government."

But he also drew hope from Correa skipping the 2017 election.

"We just have to wait a little," he wrote, pointing to the unexpected defeat of the government-backed candidate in Argentina's elections last month. "That flame of freedom that started in Argentina, that is strengthening Latin America, will illuminate our hearts in the next elections to pull us out of this ideological darkness."

Related: Argentina Moves to the Right as Mauricio Macri Wins Presidential Runoff

Follow Simeon Tegel on Twitter: @SimeonTegel