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ECUADOR: Gearing Up for a New Constitution

Rosa Rodríguez

QUITO, Sep 26 2008 (IPS) - Voters in Ecuador are getting ready to go to the polls Sunday, where they are expected to approve a new constitution that recognises ethnic diversity and expands social and environmental rights.

In the debates over the last few days of the campaign, the rightwing opposition said the constitution, which was rewritten by a constituent assembly, grants so many rights “that it would be impossible to live up to them without creating a bulky fiscal deficit,” as analyst Francisco Rocha, who is opposed to the new document, told IPS.

The new constitution would create a free universal health care system, compulsory health insurance and free education up to university level, and would recognise the unpaid work of homemakers as productive labour and make them eligible for social security.

It would also legalise same-sex civil unions, following the lead of Uruguay, the first Latin American country to do so, and would grant rights to migrant workers, refugees and young people, while recognising the right of nature to “exist” and guaranteeing access to water as a fundamental human right.

In the latest survey by the Consultora Santiago Pérez y Asociados polling firm, 57 percent of respondents said they would vote in favour of the new constitution – seven percentage points more than the 50 percent needed for approval.

Centre-left President Rafael Correa said compliance with the social obligations outlined in the new constitution would not generate a budget deficit.

The president, a U.S.-educated economist, said the warning about financial difficulties came from “certain mafias” that remain in the Finance Ministry, which were installed by previous administrations that followed “neoliberal” free-market policies, and that are pressuring against an expansion of social spending.

“We have obtained the best fiscal results in Latin America,” said Correa. “We are extremely responsible people, and we know what we are doing. All of the financial costs are covered, and anyone who claims the contrary is lying.”

Ecuador’s strong fiscal performance is a result of windfall oil profits, the renegotiation of contracts with foreign oil companies, which boosted the state’s oil revenues, and the initial payment for the renewal of the concession by mobile phone companies operating here.

Correa said the government has 1.6 billion dollars in its coffers to meet budgetary needs, including those that will arise if the new constitution is approved. In addition, it has public spending on social projects, infrastructure and assistance for the poor covered until the end of the year, he added.

The president ended the campaign for the new constitution Thursday before a crowd of thousands of his supporters in his hometown, Guayaquil, where he said the document would open the door “to a future of change.”

He decided to hold his final campaign rally in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s economic capital and main port, because it is the only major city where the new constitution may be voted down.

The opposition also held its own rallies and events, the largest of which was a caravan of cars led by Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot, of the centre-right Social Christian Party.

Nebot said that if his city votes against the constitution, it will strengthen the opposition movement and bolster demands for autonomy.

Analysts say that if the constitution is voted down in Guayaquil, the capital of the province of Guayas, conflict could break out in the southwestern Pacific coastal area, which would be the last stronghold of the rightwing opposition and traditional elites.

Correa warned of the risk of an outbreak of pro-autonomy demands, similar to what is happening in Bolivia’s eastern provinces, like Santa Cruz.

He said the opposition in Guayaquil may even foment violence along the lines of what has been seen in Bolivia this month, where pro-autonomy rightwing sectors blocked roads and seized control of central government buildings, and at least 20 supporters of leftwing President Evo Morales were killed in unclarified circumstances in the northern province of Pando.

“The press has tried to dismiss these warnings, but they are well-founded,” said the president. “If the ‘no’ vote wins in Guayaquil, the elites will try to do the same thing there.

“Nebot already said that ‘if the yes vote wins, I’ll go home, but if the no vote wins, we can continue fighting for autonomy’,” Correa pointed out.

Over the last few months, the opposition in Ecuador has focused its campaign on criticism of the Correa administration, without debating the merits of the constitution itself.

The government, meanwhile, depicted the opposition as a throwback to the past, with the campaign slogan “I’m voting ‘yes’ because I already experienced the ‘no’.”

But outside of the media spots, hundreds of debates, seminars and workshops were held in neighbourhoods, social organisations, academic institutions and sports clubs, and more than two million copies of the new constitution were distributed to the public.

For its part, the country’s powerful indigenous movement, which broke with the Correa administration in May, saying the government had continued to follow the rightwing “neoliberal” economic policies and “racist” social policies of past administrations, also campaigned for the new constitution.

But it clarified that it was backing the new constitution, not the government.

Alberto Acosta, former president of the constituent assembly and along with Correa one of the most popular political leaders in Ecuador, told IPS that the new constitution is the most democratic constitution in the country’s history.

“This is literally a citizens’ constitution, not one drawn up in barracks like the current constitution, which was written in the army war academy in 1998,” said Acosta.

He added that “more than 150,000 people showed up, presenting over 3,000 proposals, besides the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the mobile seminars and workshops held by the constituent assembly around the country.”

“Only if everyone takes part (in Sunday’s vote) can we contribute to the construction of a free and equitable society, the goal that has oriented the drafting of this new constitution,” which has been “a process of building democracy.”

Another controversial point in the debate was raised by the Catholic bishops’ conference, which alleged that the constitution would pave the way for legalisation of abortion, even though there is not a single reference to the issue.

One of the articles of the constitution merely “guarantees people’s right to reach free, responsible and informed decisions on their reproductive health and life, and to decide when to have children and how many to have.”

The Catholic Church leadership also protested because the constitution would eliminate the state’s economic support for Catholic schools and universities, in order to strengthen funding for public education.

In one of the editions of his weekly radio programme, Correa lashed out against the propaganda strategies used by those campaigning against the new constitution, like the Catholic Church.

“Have you seen the ad that shows a young girl who says something like ‘Mommy I’m pregnant, but don’t worry, with the new constitution I can decide whether or not to have it.’ Look how they lie to people, using adolescents, and playing on religious sentiments!” said Correa, who clarified that the right to family planning has been present in the constitution since 1978.

Among other changes that would be introduced by the new constitution are the right to run for a second consecutive presidential term, a ban on foreign military bases in Ecuador, a ban on genetically modified seeds, with a few exceptions, greater state control over strategic economic sectors like mining, and the redistribution of unproductive or idle land.

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