Sun, Mar 11, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Ecuador's political crisis deepens after president is given referendum warning

LEFT-WINGER President Rafael Correa, who said he wants to introduce socialism to the country, is an admirer of anti-US firebrand Hugo Chavez

AP , QUITO

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, center, talks to supporters from a Governmental Palace balcony in Quito on Friday.

PHOTO: AP

Ecuador's political crisis deepened on Friday when the Constitutional Tribunal warned President Rafael Correa that he would be acting illegally if he ignores its eventual ruling on the constitutionality of a national referendum.

Correa said on Thursday night that he would not respect any ruling that opposed the referendum on whether to rewrite the country's constitution -- one of several disputes that have set Ecuador's courts, Congress and president at one another's throats.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal this week fired 57 congressmen it accused of interfering with the referendum, which the lawmakers have called unconstitutional. The congressmen's interference consisted of calling for the impeachment of a majority of members of the Electoral Tribunal.

The separate Constitutional Tribunal is reviewing the measure's legality, but Correa said the court has no authority in the matter.

Correa supports the referendum and the creation of a special assembly to rewrite the constitution to limit the power of a political class he blames for Ecuador's problems of corruption and political instability. Correa is the country's eighth president in 10 years.

"It is a crime when a citizen disregards a ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal," said Santiago Velasquez, the court's president, on Friday.

Congress, which Correa has called "a sewer of corruption," approved the April 15 referendum last month, but stipulated that the 130-member assembly would not have the power to dismiss lawmakers and other officials elected in last year's elections.

But Correa disregarded the restrictions imposed by Congress, and the Electoral Tribunal approved his request that the assembly have unlimited powers to dismiss any elected official.

The seven-member electoral tribunal voted to oust the 57 congressmen after they signed a petition to start impeachment proceedings against the four court members who voted for Correa's version of the referendum.

On Thursday, dozens of police officers surrounded the congressional building to prevent the 57 lawmakers from entering. The 100-member unicameral body was unable to convene because it needs a quorum of 51.

The Constitutional Tribunal agreed on Thursday to a request from Congress to review the legality of the referendum. Correa responded that the court had no authority to act on the issue.

"The Supreme Election Tribunal is the maximum authority in elections," he said, adding that the Constitutional Tribunal is "dominated by the political parties."

The Constitutional Tribunal's rulings have often been ignored by presidents and Congress in the past.

Correa says his proposed reforms would make elected officials more accountable.

But opposition lawmaker Carlos Larreategui said that Ecuador "is starting to look like a dictatorship."

"The government is also trying to influence the Constitutional Tribunal's decision, which is the last resort to resolve this impasse," he said.

Correa, 43, a US-educated economist who says he wants to bring socialism to Ecuador, ran as a political outsider, earning support from Ecuadoreans fed up with the political establishment.

He is an admirer of Venezuela's firebrand anti-US President Hugo Chavez, who used a constitutional assembly to consolidate his power.

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