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Ecuador Heads for Socialist Reform of Constitution
Monday 16 April 2007
Ecuadorans overwhelmingly voted Sunday in favor of forming an assembly to rewrite the constitution, a project sought by leftist President Rafael Correa, according to initial, unofficial results.
Correa, who had staked his post on the outcome, was handed 78.1 percent of the votes, a Cedatos-Gallup exit poll showed. The private company's results were broadcast by the television network Ecuavisa.
Some 11.5 percent opposed the plan, according to the poll which was conducted among 40,000 voters and had a margin of error of at least two percentage points.
The official results were due in a week, electoral authorities said.
After weeks of political crisis in one of the most impoverished and unstable nations in South America, voters backed a move favored by Correa's ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The landslide victory had been widely expected.
Opinion polls had shown roughly 70 percent of Ecuadorans would support Correa's proposal, but critics claimed it was unconstitutional and inspired by Chavez. A national assembly of elected supporters of the firebrand leftist leader rewrote Venezuela's constitution in 1999.
Correa, who took office three months ago, has set out a sweeping reform program for his five-year mandate that would include reversing free-market measures, renegotiating foreign oil contracts and cutting ties with the International Monetary Fund.
Although a close ally with Chavez, Correa has repeatedly denied he intends to take Ecuador in his footsteps.
"It's a day of national celebration, a victory for the people, for democracy," Correa said before casting his ballot at a school in northern Quito.
Some 9.2 million people are eligible to vote in the referendum, after an intense campaign in which Correa - the country's eighth president in a politically turbulent decade - was accused of trying to concentrate powers as Chavez had.
From Caracas, Chavez expressed great confidence in that "Correa will go forward with the support of the great majority."
"We wish the best for the Ecuadoran people and President Correa, who has heeded with courage and valor the call of 21st century socialism," Chavez said in his radio and TV program, "Hello President."
Correa has signaled he would quit if voters did not approve the project, which he sees as a key component of his "citizens' revolution."
The widely popular president, who enjoys approval ratings at 70 percent, said Saturday on the eve of the vote that he would "seriously consider" stepping down if his plan is rejected.
If approved, Ecuadorans would be called to elect between October and November the 130 members of a constitutional assembly who would be tasked with writing a new constitution, whose text would be submitted to a referendum in 2008.
Correa asked the public and the military to be vigilant against polling fraud, which he said he feared could be attempted by opponents on the right.
But election observers from the Organization of American States said they had seen no indication of wrongdoing so far.
Critics claimed that, like Chavez, Correa would use the assembly to concentrate power in his own hands and that this would scare off foreign investors.
"I don't believe in imitations, that is, taking the Venezuelan model and imposing it on Ecuador," said Jaime Villaroel, 37, an economist who handed out pamphlets warning voters against giving Correa "a blank check."
"There is a risk we'll go from being dependent on the United States to being dependent on President Chavez," said Villaroel.
The country recently was thrown into political crisis with the firings of lawmakers by an electoral court.
Tension eased a little after substitutes for the ousted members were sworn in, but the opposition deputies still claimed their ouster was illegal.