Ecuador ballot gets modest voter nod

Ten ballot questions devised by leftist President Rafael Correa in what his opponents call a blatant power grab all appeared headed for victory Sunday, albeit by modest and even slim margins.

Some ballot questions were simple, such as those that would ban bullfighting and gambling. Others were complex. Two of the most controversial would bar owners of news media from having other commercial interests and create a government media oversight panel.

Many who voted "yes" for the measures said they did so out of esteem for Correa's government.

"We Ecuadoreans should be committed and help out if we want things to change," said Maria Lourdes Silva, a 43-year-old cosmetics saleswoman.

Critics said a win for Correa would curb press freedom and judicial independence.

"I think it's a duplicitous ballot that curbs liberties in which I profoundly believe," said Enrique Espinoza Ortiz, a 77-year-old lawyer who voted in a middle-class district in the capital, Quito. "I'm not against the government. But this time I just said no."

Long before significant results were available, Correa made a TV appearance Saturday night to hail what he called the latest triumph of "this dream that is called citizen's revolution." An exit poll by SP Investigacion y Estudios, conducted for state television, had found voters approved all the questions by margins greater than 20 percentage points.

But with 33 percent of the vote counted at midday Sunday, the margins were far smaller, with a few questions barely receiving support from half the voters. The media oversight panel was favored by just 50.2 percent.

International election observers said there was no evidence of fraud.

But a small group of opposition activists shouted accusations of vote-fixing outside state Electoral Council headquarters Sunday.

Joseph Thompson, the Costa Rican chief of an inter-American delegation of observers from state election agencies, called the vote legitimate but said voters could have been provided with clearer information on the ballot.

Correa, a U.S.-trained economist, has brought unusual stability to a small, traditionally volatile South American nation since taking office in 2007. He crowed Saturday night that this was his eighth straight electoral victory.

He has followed the electoral playbook of his Venezuelan ally, President Hugo Chavez, getting the constitution rewritten and largely obliterating organized opposition. Re-elected two years ago, Correa can run again in 2013.

Former President Lucio Gutierrez, a fierce Correa opponent, said Correa was using the vote "to take justice by force and dominate the news media."

Correa proposed the referendum in January, three months after a violent police revolt over benefit cuts that he called a coup attempt.

"We are going to diffuse the power in this country," Correa said Saturday night, referring to the media ownership measure.

On Twitter, his office quoted him as saying that the news media, bankers and some in the Roman Catholic Church were "our great adversaries" in the referendum.

Much like Chavez, Ecuador's president has faced a largely hostile press, and he has fought back. Since February, he has filed defamation charges against five journalists, seeking million-dollar fines and jail terms for some.

One key ballot question called for dissolving Ecuador's judicial oversight council and replacing it with a temporary body that would redo the court system, which has long been submissive to the executive.

Another would allow authorities to detain suspected criminals longer without filing charges.

Five of the questions mandate constitutional change. The other five require congressional action.

Correa enjoys a 65 percent approval rating in a country that in the decade prior to his election saw three presidents ousted in popular revolts. The most recent was Gutierrez.

Quick-tempered, Correa has alienated many former allies, including leaders of Ecuador's indigenous movement. They are angry with his insistence that the state control subsoil and water rights.

But Correa's populist programs, such as $35 monthly payments to nearly 2 million poor families, construction of low-income housing and a commitment to universal free education, have boosted his popularity in this small Andean nation of 14.3 million people.

Political analyst Adrian Bonilla of the FLACSO think tank says Correa has ably leveraged Ecuador's oil wealth and an effective tax system into popular programs.

Former President Osvaldo Hurtado, of the Christian Democrat party, said Correa has conjured "a perfect dictatorship" by manipulating democratic institutions. The Christian Democrats and other traditional parties have all but disappeared in Ecuador.

Correa has alienated many foreign investors by renegotiating oil contracts to give Ecuador a higher cut of profits, and he has forged business ties with China and Iran.

Last month, his government expelled U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges over a diplomatic cable, published by WikiLeaks, in which she suggested Correa was mindful but tolerant of corruption at top levels of Ecuador's national police.


Associated Press writers Gabriela Molina in Quito and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.


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