Ecuador’s Correa barred from presidency in national referendum

Ecuadoreans on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to bar former President Rafael Correa from ever holding the nation’s top office again — a stunning rebuke of the man who led the South American country for a decade.

With 98 percent of the vote counted, the National Electoral Council said voters had agreed to reinstate term limits by a margin of 64 percent versus 35 percent. The decision effectively bars Correa — a charismatic socialist who led the country from 2007-2017 — from participating in the 2021 elections.

The margins were even more dramatic among Ecuadoreans in South Florida, where 83 percent voted to reinstate term limits versus 17 percent who voted against the initiative. Like the Cuban and Venezuelan exile communities, Ecuadoreans in South Florida lean conservative.

By contrast, Ecuadoreans in Europe, Asia and Australia voted in Correa’s favor, as 55 percent voted against the term limit measure — versus 45 percent that supported it.

In a nationally televised address Sunday, President Lenín Moreno called the vote a “clear and powerful victory” against corruption and in favor of the nation’s young people.

“The old politicians will never come back,” he said, “This victory opens the door for us to work together and leave confrontation behind.”

While Correa’s political fate occupied much of the discussion surrounding the referendum, there were six other issues.

According to the government data, voters also overwhelmingly agreed to eliminate the statute of limitations on sex crimes against minors, halt metal mining in protected areas, eliminate a capital gains tax on real estate and limit oil exploration in the Yasuní, an area that’s home to one of the hemisphere’s last indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation.

In addition, they voted to bar people charged with corruption from ever holding public office, and agreed to allow Moreno to handpick the members of a provisional “Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control,” which will have sweeping powers to fire and hire the attorney general, electoral authorities and judges.

Correa had warned that measure, in particular, was tantamount to a coup. And he has argued that the entire referendum is illegal because Moreno skirted the Constitutional Court and enacted the measure by decree.

In an interview with Chile’s La Tercera newspaper, Correa said that if Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro had tried a similar power grab “the gringos would have already invaded.”

Correa, a U.S. trained economist, won praise for reducing poverty and building roads, schools and hospitals. But he also had an authoritarian streak. And he was criticized for abusing his power as he cracked down on opposition media and political rivals.

In 2015, with the backing of a compliant congress, he successfully scrapped presidential term limits. Although the changes wouldn’t take effect until 2021, many worried Correa was setting the stage to run the country for decades more.

Sunday’s referendum, however, blocks those changes, limiting presidents to two four-year terms.

Moreno said congress would spend the next 30 days making the legislative and constitutional changes that the referendum requires.

Correa stepped down late last year after his handpicked successor, Moreno, narrowly won the election.

While Moreno campaigned on the platform of deepening Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution,” he quickly turned on his old mentor and seized control of the ruling Alianza País party amid a wave of corruption scandals.

Correa’s longtime Vice President, Jorge Glas, who was also Moreno’s running mate, was sentenced to six years in prison for his role in an Odebrecht bribery scandal.

Experts say Moreno will emerge from the referendum strengthened — not only by sidelining Correa, his most powerful detractor, but by having control of the Council for Citizens Participation.

But without a clear legislative majority, Moreno will be forced to make alliances in a country that has a long history of turning on its leaders. Before Correa assumed office in 2007, Ecuador was one of the most unstable countries in the hemisphere, burning through seven presidents in 10 years.

“Moreno should enjoy his victory on Sunday,” wrote John Polga-Hecimovich, an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, “but he will soon face challenges greater than Rafael Correa: long-term governance in a country that has long been averse to it. Whether he is up to the challenge remains to be seen, although he has so far proven resourceful.”

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