March 1, 2024

Ecuador Votes on Bid to Give More Control to President

Campaigning ahead of the vote further polarized the Andean country, which went through a decade of political instability before Mr. Correa was elected in 2006, emerging as the country’s strongest leader in decades while drawing criticism for his consolidation of power. Mr. Correa, a left-leaning economist, pushed for the referendum after he survived a chaotic police rebellion in Quito in September and his approval ratings climbed. He and his supporters described the revolt as a coup attempt.

That rebellion, during which Mr. Correa opened his shirt and dared police officers to kill him, accentuated tensions between the president and his critics, including some in the news media.

Mr. Correa has long had a tense relationship with Ecuador’s news media over criticism of his policies, which have aligned the country with leftist allies like Venezuela and overhauled its political institutions.

Included in the 10 measures of the referendum is a controversial proposal to create a state body to regulate media content.

The president’s critics say other measures are intended to weaken Ecuador’s judiciary. They would allow citizens to be detained longer without charges being filed against them; the appointment of judges by a commission influenced by Correa supporters; and the creation of a so-called Transitional Judiciary Council, expected to be dominated by the president’s supporters, to speed certain judicial reforms.

“Correa is holding this referendum with the purpose of consolidating the powers of the executive branch,” said Fabián Corral, dean of the law department at San Francisco University in Quito. “Judicial reform is necessary, but dependence of judges upon the executive branch is not going to help.”

Some voters in Ecuador, however, said they were voting out of their admiration for Mr. Correa, an ally of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. Mr. Correa’s support is based at least in part on a nationalist focus that chafes at foreign interference.

Last month, Mr. Correa, 48, expelled the American ambassador, Heather M. Hodges, over comments made public in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, in which she referred to high-level police corruption in Ecuador and possible knowledge of it by Mr. Correa.

“Correa is a great fighter,” said Oswaldo Pazmiño, 64, a Quito resident who campaigned in favor of the proposed measures. “Nobody can stop him; he is the reincarnation of Eloy Alfaro,” he said, referring to an Ecuadorean leader in the early 20th century who is associated with antiestablishment rebellion.

Official results were not expected to be available on Saturday.

Media rights groups in Ecuador and abroad expressed concern over some ballot measures.

One would prohibit owners of media companies from having financial interests in other industries, presumably to prevent the formation of media conglomerates.

A measure similar to the media regulation efforts in Venezuela and Bolivia would create an oversight panel that would hold “communicators or broadcasters responsible” for messages considered violent, sexually explicit or discriminatory.

Mr. Correa has already clashed with some Ecuadorean journalists. He filed a lawsuit this year against El Universo, Ecuador’s top opposition newspaper, seeking criminal libel penalties of three years in prison each against an editorial writer at the newspaper and three members of its board of directors.

The lawsuit, which seeks as much as $80 million in fines from the individual defendants and El Universo’s parent company, was filed in response to a column that contended Mr. Correa ordered security forces to open “discretionary fire” at a hospital during the police revolt. Several people were killed as the rebellion unfolded and was put down.

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, wrote a letter to Mr. Correa in April criticizing the bid to regulate media content. The oversight panel, Mr. Simon said, “would open the door to government censorship.”

Simon Romero reported from Caracas, and Irene Caselli from Quito, Ecuador.

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