LESS than a year after electing a president, Ecuadoreans will vote on whether to bar a former one from returning to office. Seven questions will appear on the ballot in a referendum to be held on February 4th. The most important is whether to reinstate term limits for elected officials. If Ecuadoreans vote Yes, Rafael Correa, an authoritarian leftist who governed for ten years until 2017, will not be able to make the political comeback he is thought to be plotting.
The referendum is the result of a spectacular falling out between Mr Correa and his successor, Lenín Moreno, who narrowly won the presidential election in 2017. Mr Correa had expected his successor to carry on his programme of “21st-century socialism”. This amounted to spending lots of money on social programmes and infrastructure, and subjecting independent institutions like the press and the courts to control by the president.
Mr Moreno has disappointed him, in part because there is less money than there was during the oil bonanza that occurred during the early years of Mr Correa’s presidency. Mr Moreno unmuzzled the press and stopped meddling in the judiciary. The chief prosecutor, Carlos Baca, once a Correa loyalist, used his new freedom to charge Mr Moreno’s vice-president, Jorge Glas, with corruption. In December a court sentenced Mr Glas, who is widely regarded as Mr Correa’s man, to six years in jail for “illicit association” with Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm. He and an uncle were convicted of taking $14m in bribes from the company. The prosecution of corruption has helped make Mr Moreno popular. His approval rating in August was 77%, according to Cedatos, a pollster.
The referendum is in part Mr Moreno’s attempt to bury his predecessor politically. As president, Mr Correa at first introduced a two-term presidential limit, then persuaded congress to scrap it. He decided not to run for re-election in 2017, probably because the economy was weakening. Mr Moreno became the nominee of his party, Alianza PAIS. Mr Correa moved to Belgium, his wife’s home country.
Ecuadoreans will now be asked whether any elected official should be permitted to serve more than two terms. They will also vote on whether people convicted of corruption should be barred for life from holding public office.
Mr Moreno is also seeking the right to sack senior judges and prosecutors appointed by a supposedly independent board shortly before Mr Correa left office. The board was widely seen as beholden to the president, and the appointments looked like an attempt by him to keep control of the judiciary. Mr Baca, despite his recent show of independence, may be among those who lose their jobs if the question passes.
Some civil-liberties groups fear that Mr Moreno will use his new power simply to replace Mr Correa’s control over the judiciary with his own. His answer to that worry is that his power of appointment will last only 12 months. After that, members of the board in charge of appointing judges, prosecutors and other officials with judicial and regulatory powers will be elected by popular vote.
The referendum includes unrelated questions, too. There are a couple on environmental issues: whether to bar mining in cities and areas under environmental protection, and whether to expand the part of a national park that is off-limits to oil exploration.
A question sure to get a lot of Yes votes is whether the statute of limitations on sex crimes against children should be ended. Cases of sex abuse in schools have been in the headlines lately. Ecuadoreans will also vote on whether to abolish a windfall property tax that provoked middle-class protests in 2015.
Mr Correa, temporarily back from Belgium, is on a lorry tour of the country to encourage Ecuadoreans to vote No on all the referendum questions. In some towns people have pelted eggs at him. His bodyguards have pelted back. But nearly 30% of the electorate plans to vote against term limits. That is a higher level of support for No than in any of the other referendum questions. It suggests that Mr Correa still has significant support.
If Mr Moreno triumphs in the referendum vote, as expected, his celebration will be short. He will face immediate pressure to speed up re-democratisation and economic reform. His critics point out that his cabinet is still stuffed with officials left over from Mr Correa’s administration. They want Mr Moreno to follow up a successful referendum campaign by clearing some out and strengthening checks on presidential power.
The economy has emerged from a recession but that is only because the government is still spending money at an unsustainable rate. “Debt seems to have become Ecuador’s new oil,” commented Credit Suisse, a bank. Mr Moreno is under pressure to reduce the budget deficit, which reached 5.9% of GDP last year. But he is loth to cut spending sharply while the economy remains fragile. His campaign to undo correísmo is making progress. But Mr Correa’s economic legacy remains a burden.
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