29 January 2018 - 10:56 AM
Ecuador's Referendum: Conciliation or 'Coup'?
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Lenin Moreno was narrowly elected president on Feb. 19, 2017 with a central campaign promise to further the Citizen's Revolution political program and changing what needed improvement through a process of open dialogue.

The PAIS Alliance offices in Quito, where outgoing


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Moreno, the former Vice President under President Rafael Correa's first (2007-2013), became known for his conciliatory tone and heading a program which provided medical, social and economic support to people with disabilities.

His tone and the distance between him and his PAIS Alliance's power disputes with powerful economic and political sectors (including the media, unions and financial actors) was not enough to secure a comfortable victory. He won with 51.1 percent of the vote - the lowest in his party's history - and his victory was contested by runner up Guillermo Lasso, who alleged fraud.

Within the first months of his administration, and under the call for a national dialogue, Moreno met predominantly with sector's aligned with the opposition - including banking, big media representatives and outspoken Lasso supporters - rather than with popular sectors that have been the bulwarks of the Citizen's Revolution. This and other issues have caused many former supporters to distance themselves from Moreno's government, accusing him of siding with the PAIS Alliance's opposition.

In this context, in Oct. 2017 Moreno announced a referendum, referred to locally as the 'popular consultation', that has widened the distance between him and some former allies.

On Nov. 29, arguing that the court had exceeded 20 days in submitting its ruling - which some legal experts and adversaries contest - Moreno bypassed the Constitutional Court's mandatory assessment on the constitutionality of the questions for the referendum and issued a Presidential decree calling on the National Electoral Council to schedule a date for the referendum vote.

Correa called the move a 'coup,' and his followers have been campaigning against the vote at the same time as appealing in and outside of the country around the alleged 'illegality' of the referendum itself.

While his detractors contend that the referendum serves to secure Moreno's own political capital, the president is not going into the campaign alone; he is backed by the most prominent right-wing parties, banker Guillermo Lasso's CREO party and the Social Christian Party, as well as a number of organizations and parties that had been previously supporting of Correa.

The Seven Questions

According to Correa, some ex-PAIS members as well as political analysts, at least three questions echo the right-wing's political agenda.

Question two limits reelection to one time, consecutive or not, overturning a constitutional amendment approved by the National Assembly in December 2015, which enabled unlimited reelection.

This question faces fierce criticism from Correa supporters who argue limiting reelection was not a part of the political platform that led Moreno to power, but rather a demand by opposition leaders.

Lasso has backed this statement. In an interview with a local newspaper, Lasso clarified that his party's support for the consultation is not an endorsement of the President, claiming “legally the proposal is Lenin Moreno's, politically it belongs to the citizens since 2014.” His statement refers to his party's previous unsuccessful campaign to hold a referendum on indefinite reelection.

Question three restructures the Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control, terminating the constitutional period of its current members, and allows for the designation of a temporary Council.

The Council represents the fifth power of the Ecuadorean state, along with the executive, legislative, judicial and electoral powers. It is in charge of designating the state attorney, all superintendents, the ombudsman, the public defender, the attorney general, the comptroller general, and the members of the National Electoral Council and the Constitutional Court.

For some, this question poses immediate and long-term concerns. The immediate concern relates to the temporary council, which could evaluate and cease all the national authorities previously listed, and the mechanism established for its designation by the question's addendum. The addendum stipulates that the seven members of the interim Council will be chosen by the National Assembly from seven three-name lists provided by the president.

The addendum also changes the way in which Council members are elected. Currently, individual or social organization candidates submit their applications to the electoral council, which reviews them, conducts a knowledge test and evaluates them based on scores and affirmative action clauses.


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If the Council is restructured members will be elected by popular vote on the day for local elections. The next elections are scheduled for May 2019. The interim Council virtually appointed by the President will be able to elect new national authorities who will be in charge of a slew of state institutions including courts and the electoral body for over a year.

The long-term concern is that electing the Council's members through universal suffrage would limit participation for those who lack the necessary resources. The Foro de los Comunes, a group of public intellectuals, argues that “powerful groups, influential foundations, NGOs and mass media will look for candidates who can compete within the political marketing that rules electoral processes […] people capable of wining elections linked to the political system and not to grassroots movements.”

Question six abolishes the Law to Avoid Speculation on the Value of Land and Taxation.

The law imposes higher taxes on land that accumulates value by virtue of time (as opposed to value accrued by additional investment and/or improvements) and includes taxes for rural properties. This capital gains tax approved in December 2016 by 79 legislators, was one of Correa's last pieces of legislation.

Opposition economic and political sectors opposed the law since it was first proposed in 2015, along with taxes on inheritances. Demonstrations outside PAIS Alliance's headquarters in Quito quickly began targeting the President, calling for Correa to step down in the midst of heightened political conflict. Among key actors in these demonstrations were CREO militants and its leadership.

During the campaign Moreno talked about reviewing the law, but he has sinced called for its annulment claiming it doesn’t avoid speculation and repeating the same arguments provided during the 2015-2016 demonstrations, that it would negatively affect the construction business increasing unemployment.

The remaining four are less controversial questions.

Question one bars any person convicted for corruption from running for office, being a public servant and becoming a state contractor.

Question four eliminates statutes of limitations for sexual crimes against children and teenagers.

These two questions are the most popular among voters, however both only require an amendment to the Penal Code.

Question five bans all stages of metallic mining in protected areas and in urban centers.

Question seven: reduces the area the National Assembly authorized for oil-extraction the Yasuni National Park from 1,030 to 300 hectares.

While these questions are seen to give the consultation a progressive character, echoing certain demands by indigenous and environmentalist groups, their actual effect on territorial dynamics have been decried by analysts and social organizations as ambiguous and demagogic.

Ecuador's Critical Geography Collective has criticized question five claiming it says nothing about the fate of existing mining concessions, and will not ease the country's ongoing mining-related conflicts in areas that are neither protected, intangible nor urban centers. The group argues that if the goal was to address the dispossession and violence generated by mining, enforcing Article 117 of the Mining law, which stipulates human rights violations as grounds for terminating mining concessions, should suffice.


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A spokesperson for Yasunidos, the environmental organization that demanded a plebiscite prior to approving oil-exploitation in the Yasuni National Park, has criticized the scope of question seven, demanding further specification.

Yasunidos' proposed question would have prohibited oil-extraction in the park and is only one of the citizen proposed questions that were not included in the President's popular consultation.

Controversy and shortcomings aside, the seven proposed questions have the support of over 60 percent of Ecuadoreans, according to an average score of the four latest polls (CEDATOS – Jan. 15, OPE – Jan. 14, Diagnostico – Jan. 11 and Click Report – Jan. 6).

However the margin for the 'Yes' side has been shrinking, especially the questions of reelection, the Council, and the capital gain’s law, despite the overwhelming media coverage in its favor.


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