Fri, Mar 30, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Ecuador in political crisis over Constitution

RULING The Supreme Electoral Tribunal earlier this month fired 57 of Congress' 100 lawmakers, accusing them of interfering with a referendum to write a new constitution

AGENCIES , QUITO, ECUADOR

Ecuadoran demonstrators protest against the ousted congressional deputies, showing a rat effigy in front of the National Congress of Ecuador in Quito, on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Ecuador's highest electoral court on Wednesday fired a judge who tried to return half the country's legislators to their posts as a political crisis over the rewriting of the country's Constitution deepened.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal earlier this month fired 57 of Congress' 100 lawmakers, accusing them of interfering with a national referendum on the need for an assembly to write a new constitution.

Leftist President Rafeal Correa, who has repeatedly clashed with Congress, on Wednesday told 2,000 supporters that opposition "political mafias" were trying to block the referendum.

Rallying supporters, local Indians and union workers waving flags outside the presidential palace, Correa blasted the ruling as "illegitimate" and assailed lawmakers who many Ecuadoreans blame for a decade of instability in South America's No. 5 oil producer.

"No matter what they do, these deputies and their corrupt judges have already been dismissed by the law, by the Constitution and above all by the people who want no more of these shameless cads," Correa said from the palace balcony.

Ecuador's election court this month sacked the lawmakers charging them with trying to block Correa's plans for reforms he says are needed to curtail the damaging interference of political elites in the courts and key institutions.

The ousted lawmakers claimed they were fired illegally, but were replaced by substitutes who gave Correa a slim majority.

A judge in coastal Guayas province on Tuesday accepted an appeal by the lawmakers and reversed their dismissal.

Congress President Jorge Cevallos, an opposition leader, accepted the ruling and suspended a Congressional session, but his decision may be short-lived as the constitutional court could make a final decision this week on the lawmakers' fate.

"I have to abide by the decision of the Guayas judge," Cevallos said, triggering screams of "traitor" from pro-Correa substitutes who tried to block him as police escorted him from the chamber.

In another twist, the country's election court later fired the Guayas judge because he was not competent to make a ruling on the lawmakers, said magistrate Hernan Rivadeneira.

With only two months in office, Correa has repeatedly clashed with lawmakers. But he is popular for his vow to usher in political and economic overhauls to better address the needs of the poor in Ecuador, the world's top banana exporter.

Ecuadoreans should go to the polls for a referendum in April to decide whether to convene a constituent assembly to draft the rewrites to the Constitution.

Correa's opponents fear the US-trained economist will use the citizens' assembly to revamp the constitution to weaken the legislature and bolster presidential powers as his leftist ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez did after his election.

Ecuador's political parties often fight for appointments on influential institutions such as the electoral court and the unruly Congress has played a role in toppling three elected presidents over the last 10 years.

"The last few months are nothing more than a new phase in a long-term situation, where we have no rule of law in Ecuador," said Adrian Bonilla, at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito.

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