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Ecuador Referendum May Bring Sweeping Government Changes


Voters in Ecuador are to cast ballots Sunday on whether to create a constituent assembly to write a new constitution for the Andean nation. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports approval of the referendum is essential to the new government of President Rafael Correa, who has promised sweeping political changes.

Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, has been promoting the constitutional referendum as a way to end decades of corruption and government inefficiency.

He hopes the process will restructure the congress and end the dominance of existing political parties, blamed for recent government instability. Correa also wants to strengthen the role of the presidency to renegotiate what he says are unfair deals with international creditors and foreign oil companies.

Sunday, voters will have a chance to decide whether to embark on the president's sweeping reform process, explains Terry McCoy, political science professor at the University of Florida.

"I think he's got pretty big ambitions and plans in mind. He'd like to completely remake the Ecuadorian political system," he said. "I think most people would agree that's a good thing, because it's highly dysfunctional and institutionally weak."

Critics say constant battles between Ecuador's political parties have prevented lawmakers and officials from tackling key problems in recent years, such as poverty and the distribution of oil wealth.

Shelley McConnell, senior associate director of the Americas program at the Carter Center, says rewriting the constitution may help break with the past.

"You have an opportunity for consensus building around a national agenda and a new set of structures," she said. "But it's also a risky moment, because we're talking about the distribution of political power and resources, and those are hard fought things."

Already Mr. Correa has fought several political battles with parties opposed to the referendum. Earlier this year, opposition lawmakers moved to impeach him over the proposed vote, sparking a dispute that led to the firing of 57 opposition legislators.

Polls show the referendum is likely to win approval on Sunday, mainly because of public dissatisfaction with Ecuador's political parties and recent instability - it has had eight presidents in the past 10 years.

Mr. Correa has sought to distance himself from existing parties and portray himself as a relative newcomer to politics. Raul Madrid, associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, says it may be unrealistic to replace the nation's entire political structure.

"There are lots of problems in the country. What we don't know is to what degree these changes will solve those problems, or will they simply impose a new system of corrupt, inefficient elites," he said.

One of Mr. Correa's biggest political allies comes from outside the country: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. Mr. Correa has said he is close friends with the leftist Venezuelan leader, but he does not subscribe to his program of socialist reforms.

Since taking office in Venezuela in 1999, Mr. Chavez oversaw the writing of a new constitution for his country and has called for other reforms that are similar to those being considered in Ecuador.

Madrid says that Mr. Chavez has become a model for leftist leaders, including Mr. Correa and Bolivia's President Evo Morales.

"Chavez is viewed by Morales and Correa as being fairly effective in his ability to get done what he wants to get done, and I think they're copying his methods," he said.

Bolivia has elected a constitutional assembly to write a new government charter, and officials in Nicaragua also have proposed the idea. Shelley McConnell of the Carter Center says there is a clear trend in the region.

"I think the demands for change are genuinely domestic to the countries where they are taking place," she said. "There is a broad debate about what democracy should look like."

If Ecuadorian voters approve the referendum on Sunday, a constituent assembly will be selected and installed by October. The assembly then will have at least six months to draft a new government charter, which voters then would have a chance to approve or reject in a new ballot.