This weekend’s referendum (May 7) in Ecuador has been met with general anger over what seems like a transparent power grab by President Rafael Correa. Some questions do address some highly relevant concerns such as restricting the non-financial activities of the banking sector as well as giving authorities the ability to extend imprisonment while awaiting trial beyond the current one-year limit—a measure supported widely given the country’s high crime rate. But questions abound over the need to address other issues on the referendum (including ones on gambling and cock and bullfighting) when the country faces far more pressing concerns. Even more concerning are referendum questions that are blatant attempts to consolidate power over the courts and to further control the media.
Despite the consequences of this weekend’s referendum vote, a recent Cedatos Gallup survey (released April 22, 2011) suggests that “only 16 percent of respondents know anything about the 10 questions in the referendum.” And while Correa has faced decreasing approval ratings and lost the support of many over the past year or so—including the support of Ecuador’s largest political group of Indigenous peoples, CONAIE, who have been increasingly opposed to Correa since his advocacy of the 2009 Water Law—he is expected to win approval of the majority of voters in this, his sixth, referendum since taking office.
One of the most controversial measures being put to voters this weekend aims to restrict owners of the country’s media outlets from taking stakes in businesses not related to media so as to avoid “conflicts of interest,” in Correa’s view. The referendum question will also make Correa “regulator and controller of media content,” in a move that has free speech advocates, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, horrified of the effect it will have on further restricting Ecuador’s already compromised media.
Another controversial measure aims to rewrite the constitution and reform the country’s judiciary. The proposal will replace the current Supreme Judicial Council, the judicial body that appoints judges, with a three-person committee comprised of one member appointed by the President, one appointed by the National Assembly (in which Correa’s party holds a majority) and one member appointed by the Transparency and Social Control government agency. While this committee is intended to revamp a justice system often labeled as inept and in need of reform, Correa’s sway over the committee and his proposed timeframe for reform (18 months) leave many uneasy as to what the country’s new justice system might look like. However, if this referendum question is approved, as is expected, the answer to solving the Correa problem for the opposition may lie within.
Should those opposed to Correa in the National Assembly gain enough seats, assuming the presidency is out of reach, they would then disrupt the balance of power in this new judicial committee and thus counter-balance Correa’s influence on the court system. However, the difficulty will be in getting Ecuador’s many political parties to stand together just long enough to make this happen. Nonetheless, growing opposition to Correa indicates that now may be the time to act.
People and parties in opposition to Correa’s administration and seeming overreach into society have been increasingly vocal. CONAIE outright rejected the referendum vote, and a recent twitter campaign (#undedoparacorrea – or, “a finger for Correa”) protests the administration’s support for the Rebellion and Attempts against Public Servants Act (Art. 230, Penal Code). Through this law a woman was recently jailed after raising and waving her finger “no” in reference to the referendum as she drove past the presidential delegation in her car.
Members of Correa’s own party, Alianza PAIS, have begun to defect and voice opposition to the president. And even the president’s brother, Fabricio Correa, has publicly voiced his opposition over YouTube where he can be seen wearing a t-shirt that reads “No. No brother, this time no,” in reference to the president’s upcoming referendum. Add to this the actions of Jamie Nebot, mayor of Ecuador’s largest city and main economic hub, Guayaquil, who is also publicly opposing the referendum in the latest of a series of confrontations against Correa and his agenda.
Yet, the sad reality of Ecuador’s political landscape is that it remains largely fractured and segmented. This leaves Correa with the only clear and popular message and has consequently resulted in him cruising to victory through two elections and, if the polling is correct for this weekend’s vote, six referendums. If the question of restructuring the judicial system is approved, the only chance the opposition will have is to set aside their differences and appeal to the masses in a unified front—much like Correa did when coming to power in 2006 and as he continues to do now.
If the many political actors including the Partido Social Cristiano, Izquierda Democrática and Movimiento Popular Democrático cannot rally around the erosion of political and social freedoms, then the country only has itself to blame for continued infringements on Ecuador’s political and social order. A large segment of Ecuador’s citizens—workers’ unions, free-speech advocates, university students and professors, environmental groups, and even some members of the Catholic church—are ready for an opportunity to say “enough is enough.” When will the politicians listen?
*Edward Remache is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a contributing writer at Americas Quarterly.