A Growing Constitutional Pain: The Need for Balance in the Government of Ecuador

©ITU/I.Wood

Like most Latin American countries, Ecuador recently has experienced a massive shift in the political ideology in the aftermath of its federal elections. President Moreno has been open about his dislike of the former president, Rafael Correa, and his populist tactics that increased the state’s role in reducing poverty and inequality. Poverty rates declined from 36.7% to 22.9% between 2007 and 2016, and the inequality score of the Gini index decreased from 0.55 to 0.47; however, the state of Ecuador simultaneously found itself heavily reliant on oil exports and deficit spending and experienced a recession due to external factors and reckless fiscal policy. The “Pink Tide” —  a massive shift towards left-leaning leadership in Latin American countries as a rejection of previous “neoliberal” administrations — ended with the critical juncture of President Moreno being elected and reversing his campaign platform.

Now, Moreno has a right-leaning agenda that focuses on cutting public spending and taxes for corporations, welcoming loans from the IMF and foreign direct investment. Such a pivot is quite peculiar since advocacy in the government allowed Moreno to increase government spending towards aiding disabled citizens, bringing him popularity in both the domestic and international arena. His feud with his predecessor Correa and the following constitutional referendum Moreno held is alarming, as Moreno has expanded his executive powers to reach over other branches of government. The central issue of socio-economic dilemmas in Ecuador is not solely about policy, but about how vulnerable the constitution is and how easy it is for candidates, regardless of their political affiliation, to reform it to meet their political agenda and reward their close supporters. As Moreno conducts unfavorable economic policy, attention is shifted away from the erosion of constitutional checks to the executive branch. If Ecuadorian citizens desire a representative government that does not partake in such drastic swings in ideology or that centralizes power, it must focus on its constitution and not allow the succeeding president to continue this unfortunate trend of eroding checks and balances.

In order to fully understand the opposition that exists against Moreno and his policies, one must look at the reforms that former President Correa conducted. While Correa’s win back on December 4, 2006, was memorable as it was part of the “Pink Tide” and promised great change to those in poverty, Correa showed early signs of wanting to centralize power. He ordered a plebiscite, or a direct vote of all members in the electorate, in April 2007; the proposal passed with 80 percent of the public approving of such referendum to take place and 60 percent of the Constituent Assembly supporting it. Such a referendum was quite popular with the people, yet the public didn’t realize it allowed an immense increase in presidential decrees. To make matters worse, the Electoral Tribunal that historically has sided with the Executive Branch approved the referendum despite the fact that it would allow the Constituent Assembly to disband Congress. The Constituent Assembly at the time was dominated by the opposition party and it decided to impeach Correa. President Correa, however, used the Electoral Tribunal to remove 57 delegates of the Constituent Assembly. After massive protests and marches, a petition was considered to reinstate 51 of the 57 delegates; unfortunately, Congress removed the nine electoral tribunal judges before they could reinstate the delegates.

The removal of all nine electoral tribunal judges led to massive marches and protests in Quito and unfortunately ended with Correa centralizing power. Yet it’s not just his interpretation of the constitution that made him a controversial president: his controversy extended from economic policy to foreign policy and how he dealt with allegations regarding potential connections with  FARC rebels. He received further detrimental blowback from the public as he replaced finance minister Patino to hide market manipulation allegations. Correa even used CONARTEL (radio and television regulating body) to shutdown Teleamazonas for spreading “false information.” The president of the Inter-American Press Association even went so far as to categorize Correa as a threat to the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press. His initial economic victories and performance as a president were the main factors for his popularity at the beginning of his term, but with the underlying desire to centralize power, such popularity quickly faded away. When one looks towards the actions of Moreno, they could have only been done with the foundation that was established by Correa and his three preceding presidential terms.

"The central issue of socio-economic dilemmas in Ecuador is not solely about policy, but about how vulnerable the constitution is and how easy it is for candidates, regardless of their political affiliation, to reform it to meet their political agenda and reward their close supporters."

Moreno will continue to amass power as this trend is the unfortunate side effect of the decisions made by Correa. Moreno was originally nominated as the candidate of PAIS Alliance, the center-left democratic socialist party in 2016. After narrowly winning the election, he drastically changed his leftist stance to one of neoliberalism both domestically and in the foreign arena. What proved to be more alarming to the average Ecuadorian citizen, however, was his decision to establish the CPCSS-T: a new political entity that has supra-constitutional powers and allows Moreno to oversee candidates and remove the remaining parts of Correa’s legacy. Since its establishment, Moreno has been able to oust and replace provincial judges, government officials, the judicial council and the National Electoral Council (CNE).

With extended executive powers, Moreno has gone through extensive reforms and pivoted to conservative policy to remove the Correa’s legacy and his previous policies. He has reduced public spending and tax rates for corporations, liberalized trade, allowed flexibility in labor codes, and even implemented policies that are hard to pinpoint like granting amnesty to fraudsters. The government adopted an international system of dispute arbitration for all foreign investments, which is in violation of the constitution. It currently waives the right to tax increases in raw material prices and foreign exchange repatriations. With no barrier in the federal system, Moreno has too much leeway and influence in decisions on how to manage the economy and which sectors receive special attention. In 2018, Moreno supported oil drilling in Ecuador’s Amazon region and welcomed an IMF loan of $10 billion dollars with conditions to restructure the economy and cut public spending. The cut of public subsidies that was announced on October 2nd, 2019 triggered massive protests, pushing officials to move the capital temporarily from Quito to Guayaquil. Seven people were killed and 2,100 arrested before Moreno signed Decree 883 and restored the subsidies. While the public believes that the return of fuel subsidies is a significant win against the administration, President Moreno is in the midst of considering to cut government salaries and vacation time and even proposing a $20 monthly salary bonus to private sector employees. With such drastic reforms, it’s best for the Ecuadorian citizens to be wary of his unchallenged authority.

Public disapproval must center on the root of its problems: a weak constitution. With approval ratings under 30 percent, the public has clearly voiced its opinion; yet, it has won a small victory overall, as Moreno will most likely continue to amass power for his own agenda. While some groups like CONAIE have been able to use the ongoing tension to address economic inequality between rural and urban areas, as well as discrimination towards indigenous groups, groups that are protesting have yet to focus on the need for constitutional reform With much of the focus centered around economic subsidies and the desire for government to address poverty and inequality, not many have realized that it’s the overarching power that the Ecuadorian president that has allowed such  splitting and unpopular decisions to arise. While there has been some progress, such as the reduction of terms by a landslide vote in 2018 that reversed the referendum Correa held in 2015, the executive continues to be the clear dominating branch of the Ecuadorian federal government. With an uncertain horizon, it is best for Ecuadorian citizens to focus on the constitution as the temporary period of relative peace in the aftermath of protests may once again deteriorate in light of potential and further economic reforms by President Moreno. Only then will Ecuador witness a fair and representative government, without drastic swings that polarize the public.

Photo: Image via ITU Pictures (Flickr)

About the Author

Leonardo Moraveg '22 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Leonardo can be reached at leonardo_moraveg@brown.edu

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