Ecuador: A Constitutional Referendum Intended to Solidify Control by Elites

By Gustavo A Maranges on February 2, 2023

Lasso pushes new referendum down the throats of the people. photo Dolores Ochoa

On Sunday, February 7, sectional elections will take place in Ecuador to elect mayors, prefects, rural or urban councilors, parish boards, and members of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS). At the same time, the executive led by Guillermo Lasso heavily pushed to hold a Constitutional Referendum on the same date, which has raised serious concerns among the Ecuadorian opposition.

The referendum brings 8 questions about possible reforms, which might deeply change how politics work in the country.  Lasso has campaigned to highlight the many benefits it may bring while trying to hide the referendum’s real purpose: to alter the current balance between the state’s powers and ultimately strengthen control over the country.

That is why, without detracting from the election of local authorities, this is the election’s most important element since it implies changes whose long-term impact may affect people and political outcomes.

Initially, the Referendum was made up of 11 questions, but the Constitutional Court dismissed three of them. It argued formulation problems, including two questions that dealt with issues not included in the question. However, the three rejected were the most interesting because of the foreseeable social benefits they would imply, such as the use of funds confiscated from drug trafficking for education, the criminalization of extortion with sentences of 7 to 10 years (it would guarantee greater protection to citizens who must pay the mafias for “protection”) and a tax incentive for those who employ people over 45 years of age, the most affected ones by unemployment.

The remaining eight have very few social benefits and focus more on satisfying power games in an extremely politicized country than on improving state functions, as they declare. After analyzing these eight questions, the first and most concerning fact that pops up is the right wing’s desire to limit the Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS) powers as much as possible.

The institution was created by the 2008 Constitution, which was promoted by former President Rafael Correa (2007-2017) and became the legal basis of the Citizen Revolution. According to the Constitution, the CPCCS should guarantee people’s interests in state institutions and their accountability to citizenship. Thus, electing the Ombudsman’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, the Comptroller General’s Office, and the National Electoral Council, among other relevant positions, are part of CPCCS’s mandate.

It is the highest representation of the people’s power whose representatives are elected among candidates without political affiliation for the last 5 years and by universal vote. It is a mighty institution intended to take distance from the partisan interests that dominate other representative bodies, such as the National Assembly and the executive branch. Therefore, emptying it means reducing people’s power, which is precisely the ultimate interest of the current referendum. Three out of eight questions are focused on it.

One of them, the second, aims to take away from the Judiciary Council, which relies on the CPCCS, its power to appoint and evaluate prosecutors. The government proposes to create Fiscal Council under Attorney General’s Office control to supplant the current process, assuring “greater celerity in the appointment of these officials.”

If implemented, the reform will not only weaken the CPCCS but also complicate the appointment and evaluation process, as stated by the Attorney General’s Office itself. On top of that, it would lead to the absurdity of making the Prosecutor’s Office judge and party in the evaluation and accountability process.

On the other hand, the fifth and sixth questions are a frontal attack on people’s power. The fifth one intends to take away all CPCCS power to elect high-rank public officials to give them to the National Assembly. Meanwhile, the sixth one proposes that the National Assembly, instead of the people, should elect the CPCCS counselors.

The executive argues that these are reforms to optimize these functions. However, it deliberately forgets to mention that most of the CPCCS’ current functioning problems came after the right-wing forces started a war in 2019 against this institution. Since then, its counselors have been removed again and again under a myriad of accusations that only hide the political purge against those followers of former President Rafael Correa.

Evidently, the government is interested in avoiding by all possible means any left representative gets any power, which would endanger the neoliberal onslaught carried out by the Ecuadorian oligarchy embodied in the current president Guillermo Lasso.

Despite having different natures, the third and fourth questions have the same objective: to reduce the power of minorities. The third one seeks to modify the parameters to determine how many representatives should make up the National Assembly. meanwhile, the fourth establishes a minimum membership for a political movement to be taken into account by the state.

If the reforms are passed, the smallest provinces, coincidentally the poorest ones, although rich in resources, such as those in the Amazon region, would be at a disadvantage. Likewise, political movements would be supervised by the National Electoral Council (CNE), which would verify their membership is higher than 1.5% of their jurisdiction’s electoral roll. After it, the dozens of local political movements will disappear, meaning communities will lose the ability to struggle against big corporations and influence national politics to their benefit.

The seventh question seems to be unchallenged, but an in-depth analysis reveals some dangers to have in mind. Creating a Subsystem for Water Protection would imply a high risk of undermining Community Water Boards (Juntas Comunitarias del Agua) power while favoring the new institution over state control. It is troublesome for the fact that these boards were created to assure communities the control over local resources, since successive neoliberal governments only cared about big corporations’ interests. Therefore, saying yes to this question would be a step backward in the social struggles in defense of the environment and the indigenous communities, which account for over 7% of the population in Ecuador.

The eighth question also has an environment-friendly look. The government proposes to give economic compensation to those who perform activities that benefit the environment. Although it might benefit many people and is the less suspicious reform, its success or real impact will depend on the implementation mechanism. It is necessary to avoid those funds ending in the hands of the companies responsible for the pollution and destruction of the environment, as is the case in many countries today.

Finally, the first question is about whether deporting people related to drug trafficking, which is not allowed in the current Constitution. This issue is one the US is demanding of  the Lasso government, which sees it as a way to reduce criminal networks associated with drug trafficking by intimidation.

Statistics and experience show that this measure has little impact on crime reduction. Mexico and Colombia are good examples of it, to such an extent that the current Colombian President Gustavo Petro has questioned the continuation of this practice. In addition to being ineffective as a control measure, it is a process with high risks of Human Rights violations.

However, nobody noticed that it would be very beneficial for Lasso since he has weakened the state institutions related to security. An example of this is the bloody and successive prison riots, or the fact that Ecuador has gone from being the second safest country in Latin America to the third most violent in just 5 years. It is easier for a neoliberal government to offer such a short-sight and quick way out than investing in social and security programs, which have proven to be the most efficient solutions to these kinds of scourges.

Perhaps, in a case-by-case analysis, Lasso’s reforms may appear superficial and inconsequential. However, taken together, they represent an attempt to dismantle some of the 2008 Constitution’s important achievements. Aware of the power of the right-wing in political bodies, Lasso intends to put under their control as many strings as possible to the detriment of people’s power. The elite are anxious to restore its control mechanisms over the state and society, which were considerably diminished after 10 years of Correa’s leftist Citizen Revolution.

What Ecuadorians will vote for next Sunday is not just a tiny reform, but a real surrender to the oligarchy and its political representatives. Basically, they must choose between continuing to fight or being abettors in the destruction of democracy initiated by Lenin Moreno and deepened by Lasso.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano – US