Ecuadorians Approve New Constitution to Expand Power of Leftist President

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Ecuadorians on Sunday resoundingly approved a new constitution that would significantly expand leftist President Rafael Correa's powers and allow him to run for two more consecutive terms, unofficial partial results showed.

Voters gave the measure 63 percent backing, according to a nationwide quick count by an independent citizen's group.

"We're making history! Onward!" a jubilant Correa proclaimed in his coastal hometown of Guayaquil after his crushing victory became clear. He and the close associates who helped him craft his own brand of "21st-century socialism" hugged each other and sang "Patria," their party anthem.

Correa called on Ecuadoreans to "join our hearts and minds to achieve a brave, sovereign and dignified homeland — equitable, just and without misery."

The quick count by Citizen Participation, representing 4 percent of the vote, had a margin of error of plus or minus half a percentage point. It was announced after exit polls by two different firms put voter approval at 66 percent and 70 percent, respectively.

First official results were expected late Sunday.

Correa says the Andean nation's 20th constitution will spur "rapid, profound change," benefiting the hardworking, humble majority and helping him eradicate a political class that made Ecuador one of Latin America's most corrupt countries.

While conceding that it's far from radical compared to similar projects in Venezuela and Bolivia, critics say the new constitution gives Correa far too much control over the economy, as well as the judicial and legislative branches.

Correa, 45, roundly rejected such talk on Sunday, and called for national unity.

He urged everyone who voted against the constitution "for ideological reasons — and not out of perverse self-interest" to help him "build together this new homeland with your decent and critical opposition."

Sunday's victory was the third nationwide electoral victory for Correa since he won office in November 2006 with 57 percent of the vote. He also won the referendum approving the rewriting of a new constitution.

The new magna carta will almost certainly lead to presidential, congressional and local elections early next year, and an overhaul of the judiciary in which Correa is expected to play a decisive role.

The Central Bank and other key institutions also would cede or lose autonomy to Correa, this chronically unstable nation's sixth president in a decade.

That should help the U.S.- and European-trained economist, who presides over of South America's fifth-largest oil producer, fashion what he has called a "new model society."

The new constitution guarantees free education through university and social security benefits for stay-at-home mothers and workers in the informal sector. Such measures would supplement already-popular Correa programs that provide low-interest micro-loans for small businesses, building-material giveaways for homes and free seeds for growing crops.

Vicente Pazmino, a 53-year-old businessman, voted "null" — neither yes nor no — on Sunday because Correa "wants to be master of this country, and the clauses of this constitution will let him do what he wants."

But even Correa supporters expressed concern over what Quito psychologist Daniel Rivas, 42, called a "very poetic but not very practical" document. Rivas voted no, wondering how Correa will pay for all his ambitious social programs. A third of the national budget comes from oil revenues, and Correa has had the good fortune this year of oil prices soaring beyond US$100 per barrel with annual production of about 169 million barrels.

Some in Correa's badly splintered and debilitated opposition contend he's creating a socialist autocracy on the Venezuelan model. But while Correa took a page out of Hugo Chavez's playbook by pushing for a new constitution that would help him consolidate power, he has kept the Venezuelan president at arm's length.

Unlike Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, Correa has not moved to nationalize telecommunications and electrical utility companies or vowed to establish closer relations with Russia. And while Correa has opted not to renew next year the lease that allows U.S. anti-narcotics missions to fly out of a coastal airport in Manta, U.S. diplomats praise Ecuador's drug-fighting cooperation.

The new constitution's 444 articles include such environmental prescriptions as "respect for nature, its maintenance and the regeneration of its vital cycles" and a ban on biopiracy. And it says property should have "a social, environmental and productive function."

Such clauses strike dread in large landholders, who fear state confiscation though Correa has not threatened such action.

Other clauses upset social conservatives, such as one that recognizes the family "in its diverse types." And while the charter holds that life "begins with conception," it also guarantees "the right to freely make responsible and informed decisions about one's health and reproductive life."

The Roman Catholic hierarchy of this overwhelmingly Catholic nation complains that those provisions could lead to legal abortion and same-sex unions.