Vote in Ecuador turns into heated showdown on term limits

Sitting in his wheelchair on a brightly lit stage, Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno launched into a sermon about why no political leader should be allowed to remain in office for years on end.

"No one should think they are the owner of power," said Moreno, who was clad in a black leather jacket.

Hundreds of cheering supporters waved the Andean nation's flag and sung along to a campaign tune urging voters to pass a referendum Sunday that would prohibit leaders from being re-elected more than once.

The jubilant scene Wednesday stood in stark contrast to the welcome the nation's three-time former President Rafael Correa received hours earlier when protesters hurled eggs and dirty plates at his silver SUV.

The upcoming referendum has brought the one-time allies to a head as Moreno becomes Latin America's new political star and Correa finds his legacy on increasingly shaky ground. Long expected to follow Correa's political lead, Moreno has instead charted his own path and led a referendum drive that could bar his former mentor from running for president again.

Polls indicate the referendum is widely expected to win approval, a victory that would consolidate Moreno's mandate.

"In Latin America you never know that someone is going to be out of power forever," said Carlos de la Torre, a professor at the University of Kentucky. "Politics could change and Correa could come back. But at least in the short run, he is in deep trouble."

The referendum comes as several countries throughout the region are grappling with the issue of elections and term limits for leaders who have already spent years in office and are seeking re-election.

In Bolivia, a court recently paved the way for President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term despite a voter referendum rejecting his right to seek another mandate. In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro is running for office in an election that opposition leaders consider illegitimate. And in Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernandez was recently sworn in for a second term after a Supreme Court ruling allowed him to go around a provision barring presidents from pursuing re-election.

"There is a huge regional struggle right now over how long leaders should stay in power and about democracy in general," said Brian Winter, vice president of the regional group Council of the Americas.

The small Andean nation has been ruled over the last decade by Correa, a strongman who won the loyalty of millions of poor Ecuadoreans with generous health and social programs. Though credited by many with helping deliver the nation's stability, he has also been decried by foes for reforms that consolidated executive power and silenced his critics.

Correa campaigned alongside Moreno in a presidential election last year, praising his chosen successor as the leader best fit to ensure the "21st century socialism" that he implemented remains intact. But in the eight months since Moreno's victory, the two have had a bitter falling out. Moreno has courted conservative business leaders and sought to make amends with groups Correa shunned. He has even accused Correa of planting a hidden video camera in his office in order to spy on him remotely.

Meanwhile, Correa, who had moved to his wife's native Belgium, has returned to rally against the man he now calls a "traitor."

"We are going to say no to this crooked referendum," he told supporters recently.

Analysts believe Correa still has the loyalty of about 25 percent of Ecuadorean voters, but the once-commanding influence he exerted over the nation's politics is now in question. His former vice president, Jorge Glas, was recently sentenced to six years in jail for accepting bribes from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. Correa has defected from the leftist ruling party he founded that is now under Moreno's leadership, vowing to start his own party with two dozen leaders who joined him.

Sunday's referendum includes seven questions, including one that would bar politicians from more than one re-election to the same post and another that would give Moreno authority over the Citizens' Participation Council. The council is filled with Correa acolytes who determine who gets to lead some of the nation's most important institutions.

Moreno, a paraplegic since being shot in 1998, is enjoying a near 70 percent approval rating and has succeeded in building bridges between the ideological right and left where none existed before. If the referendum passes Sunday, it would send a strong statement that Ecuadorean voters approve of Moreno's consensus-building mandate and are ready to move past Correa.

"His legacy is under question by his own party," de la Torre said of Correa. "We are seeing a sort of perestroika led by Lenin."

Many voters like Bolivar Ante, an office messenger who voted for Moreno's conservative opponent, were initially skeptical, but now say they strongly approve of the country's head of state.

"He's an open, democratic president," Ante said.

Still, Moreno faces numerous challenges: Ecuador's economy, which uses the U.S. dollar, has lost its competitive edge to neighboring countries with local currencies. Economists project the nation's economy will grow only slightly in 2018 and the private sector is pushing Moreno to make tough fiscal decisions, like raising taxes.

Even with a diminished influence, Correa is also still likely to cast a shadow over Moreno's presidency.

"Moreno has to strike a really careful balance between forging his own path and alienating the base of support that he inherited from Correa," Winter said. "I think so far, he's done a remarkable job."


Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.