Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ECUADOR: The Complicated Road to a Constituent Assembly

Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Jan 31 2007 (IPS) - One of the key campaign pledges of Ecuador’s new left-leaning president, Rafael Correa, was to hold a referendum for the creation of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, in order to bring about radical political and economic reforms.

While the popular pressure and a political pact between the government and former president Lucio Gutiérrez (2003-2005) would seem to guarantee that the referendum will take place, a decision by the electoral court to put the question in the hands of Congress has angered many of the social organisations that back Correa.

The groups, worried that Gutiérrez will not live up to his part of the agreement, decided to hold protests outside of the single-chamber Congress in order to pressure the legislators to approve the referendum.

When some 5,000 demonstrators gathered outside the legislature Tuesday, the congressional session was suspended, and lawmakers were escorted out of the building by police.

A smaller group of protesters then shoved their way through the police cordon and into the legislature, which they occupied briefly until they were dispersed with tear gas by the police.

Although Congress was getting ready to vote on the referendum for a constituent assembly, which, if approved, would be organised by the electoral court, the protest reflected the social movements’ distrust of the legislature, to which Correa himself referred during the campaign as a “sewer of corruption.”

Correa’s Alianza País party did not field congressional candidates of its own, which means the president depends on allies, such as Gutiérrez’s Patriotic Society Party (PSP), to push through reforms like the constituent assembly.

The demonstrators were also protesting a decision by the legislators to increase their salaries by 1,000 dollars, just three weeks after they reduced them and pledged that the current legislative period would be marked by austerity.

Luis Villacís, the leader of the Popular Democratic Movement (MPD), told IPS that the demonstration “expressed the people’s demand for a referendum to establish a constituent assembly.”

The MPD, whose members made up the bulk of Tuesday’s protesters, is comprised of teachers’ unions and associations of students and small businesses.

Trade unionist Mesías Tatamuez, who has links to the Socialist Party, said the demonstrations would not only continue, but would expand throughout the country.

The labour activist said that the mobilisation is also aimed at getting the government to “open up to a broader dialogue” with the country’s civil society organisations, whose views – he complained – are not being taken into account.

The government “is acting on its own,” and “if we want to defeat the right, we must open ourselves up to dialogue” and create a large unified front, he argued.

“We have launched a process of mobilisation until Congress respects the Ecuadorian people’s demand for change and decides to call a referendum,” said César Rodríguez, who coordinated the supporters of the ruling Alianza País party during the demonstration.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which did not take part in Tuesday’s demonstration, announced protests of its own and a possible “uprising” – along the lines of past nationwide indigenous mobilisations – unless clear steps were taken to call a referendum.

ECUARUNARI (Confederation of Kichwa Peoples of Ecuador), the most powerful CONAIE member organisation, held a special assembly on Monday and Tuesday to draw up a schedule of activities to press for the referendum.

“The constituent assembly cannot be blocked by a few legislators. It is a demand by the people, and will become reality. If they try to stop it and an indigenous uprising is required (to make it happen), then that’s what we’ll do,” said ECUARUNARI president Humberto Cholango.

Cholango said CONAIE, ECUARUNARI and dozens of other social organisations and movements have joined together in a National Front for the Plurinational Constituent Assembly, which plans to participate in the assembly as a unified body.

“Only by means of unity among the social organisations of the countryside and the cities can we defeat the rightwing power groups which, since they won’t be able to block the constituent assembly, will try to take it over, in order to impose their own interests,” said the activist.

The head of CONAIE, Luis Macas, reported that indigenous communities and organisations are beginning to discuss aspects to be included in the foundations of the new, overhauled political, legal and economic structures in Ecuador.

“It is essential to discuss issues that must be considered by the constituent assembly and must be in the new constitution, like the defence of sovereignty, the nationalisation of natural resources, the defence of biodiversity, and the agrarian revolution,” said Macas.

In surveys by the Datanálisis and Cedatos polling firms, 85 and 80 percent of respondents, respectively, said they backed the creation of a constituent assembly.

The intricate political pact between Correa and Gutiérrez to convene the assembly includes several steps or conditions. The first was the government’s support last week for the designation of a PSP representative as president of the electoral court.

The Correa administration also appointed one of the former president’s associates as head of the Banco Nacional de Fomento (national development bank).

But instead of deciding on Correa’s request for a referendum, the electoral court sent the proposal to Congress to determine whether or not it is “constitutional.”

Another point in the agreement was for the electoral court to lift the ban on political activity that hangs over Gutiérrez, to allow him to run for a seat on the constituent assembly.

In addition, Correa is to choose the new comptroller-general from a list of names sent to him by Congress, which is made up of people with links to Gutiérrez.

Correa said he backed the idea of Gutiérrez running for a seat on the constituent assembly, so that he can be “defeated at the polls.”

Some sectors that support Correa have criticised his pact with Gutiérrez, who the president has publicly described as a “snake.”

The demonstrations began a week after the electoral court left the decision on the referendum up to Congress, although the government downplayed the importance of that move. “The final resolution will be a call for a popular consultation (referendum),” said Interior Minister Gustavo Larrea.

“We have made it clear that we support the consultation, and we will vote in Congress to give the question fast-track treatment,” said the head of the PSP, Gilmar Gutiérrez, Lucio’s brother and the party’s presidential candidate in the elections.

The referendum apparently has majority support in the 100-member legislature, with the backing of 53 lawmakers: 24 from the PSP, 11 from the Democratic Left and Ethical Network, six from the indigenous Pachakutik Movement, three from the Popular Democratic Movement, one from the Socialist Party, one from the New Country Movement, six from the populist Ecuadorian Roldosista Party, and one independent.

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