- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (AP) — Leftist President Rafael Correa scored a major victory yesterday as Ecuadoreans voted overwhelmingly to support his ambitious plan to remake the nation’s system of government and weaken its discredited Congress, an exit poll showed.

Voters across this small Andean nation, from highland Indians in ponchos to fishermen in villages along its Pacific coast, turned out to cast ballots on the need for a special assembly to rewrite the constitution — a measure many hope will bring economic improvement to their lives.

An exit poll by CEDATOS-Gallup showed that 78.1 percent of voters approved the election of a constitutional assembly, while 11.5 percent rejected the proposal and 10.4 spoiled their ballots or cast blank ones.

CEDATOS-Gallup said 2,000 pollsters interviewed 40,000 voters nationwide with a margin of error in the result of 2 percentage points. Official results will not be available for five days.

“A historic win has been achieved today, but many more battles remain to be won,” a beaming Mr. Correa said at a news conference after the voting ended. “The future was at stake. The motherland was at stake.”

Mr. Correa enjoys a 70 percent approval rating and pollsters predicted a majority would vote in favor of the referendum in a country long plagued by political instability and poverty.

Congress, which Mr. Correa has labeled “a sewer of corruption,” has dismissed three presidents in the past decade, violating impeachment proceedings in the process.

“We have a presidential system in theory, but in practice who runs things in this country is Congress. That can’t be,” Miguel Macias, a constitutional scholar, said yesterday.

But critics fear Mr. Correa could wind up controlling the assembly and seeking dictatorial power. They are worried by what they call his increasingly authoritarian style — similar to his ally, Hugo Chavez, the firebrand president of Venezuela.

A political newcomer with a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, Mr. Correa, 44, was elected in November with a power-to-the-people message, promising to clip the wings of Ecuador’s political establishment.

The eighth president in 10 years, the tall, charismatic Mr. Correa has drawn big crowds with vitriolic speeches, assailing his opponents and critics as corrupt. The more Mr. Correa lashes out, the more his bond with Ecuador’s poor majority appears to strengthen.

The oil-based economy is also running in his favor. It is relatively stable thanks to high crude-oil prices and the adoption of the U.S. dollar as Ecuador’s official currency in 2000. But most Ecuadoreans remain poor and are increasingly demanding more from their government.

Mr. Correa has not offered detailed proposals for the anti-corruption measures he envisions will result from a new constitution. But he has mentioned that a new charter should eliminate the authority of Congress — which is controlled by Ecuador’s traditional parties — to name judges and other judicial and electoral authorities.

Opponents fear he will use the constituent assembly to consolidate enough power to overcome any opposition from other branches of government.

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