Wednesday, March 21, 2007

New Congress, New Political Game

Per postings earlier this month, democracy and specifically, the legislative branch of government here in Ecuador have been in complete disarray, what with the firing of 57 of the Ecuadorian Congress' 100 Diputados by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE; see three most recent postings for details on how/why this happened).

Since President Rafael Correa's National Police force would not allow the fired Diputados to return to Congress (claiming that they were merely enforcing a legal decision taken by the TSE), Congress had remained in recess (or moribund, depending on your point of view) since March 7, leaving the country without a legislature and without any focal point for the three major opposition parties, the Social Christian Party (PSC, Leon Febres Cordero/Jaime Nebot), the Party for Renovation and Independence (PRIAN, Alvaro Noboa), and the Patriotic Partnership Party (PSP, Lucio Gutierrez).

Yesterday, March 20, collaboration between three small parties sympathetic to Correa (Pachakutik, the Izquierda Democratica, and PRE (Abdullah Bucaram), the Correa government (specifically, Gustavo Larrea, the Minister of Government, who heads the National Police), and 21 Diputados Alternos (Diputados Suplentes, or backup Diputados, all legally elected in this role last year) who were willing to defy their PSC, PRIAN, and PSP leadership, resulted in the convention of a new, reconstituted Congress consisting of non-fired Diputados (31 of the 43 surviviors only; no idea where the other guys were) and the aforementioned Alternos.

The Correa allies worked out a deal whereby the TSE would certify the Alternos as legal alternates to the fired Diputados, and based on this, the President of the Congress, Jorge Cevallos (a PRIAN survivor, btw; he didn't vote to fire the TSE President earlier this month, and so escaped the massacre) swore in the 21 Alternos as legal reps.

The Alternos (nine from the PSP, nine from the PRIAN and three from the PSC) are basically party defectors considered turncoats by their leaders. The Alternos have decided to call themselves the Bloque de Dignidad, and they claim that they're absolutely independent of any political influence. More than one comentarista has noted however, that anyone who sneaks into Congress under Correa police protection at 5:00 in the morning can hardly call themselves dignified, let alone independent of the Correa government.

In any event, the Alternos and the survivors consitute a quorum of 52 pro-government reps and so Congress is back in business. For the moment, it appears that Correa and his allies have neatly neutralized the old Congress and the "partidocracia" of the three principal, old line political parties (although the PSP, a Gutierrez creation, was only five years old) recasting the Congress to Correa's liking, and marginalizing the old liners from political dialogue - at least for the moment.

This is Ecuador, after all, and more one political ghost has arisen from the (politically) dead in the past, so it's premature to call the game for Correa. Several of the fired Diputados have filed complaints with the Constitutional Tribunal alleging that their removal was unconstitutional; the TC has yet to opine on these complaints, so remote possibility exists that the TC could reverse the firings (NB: Just to make things interesting, some TSE members have threatened to take out the TC too, if it dares contravene the TSE during an election campaign; the TSE avers that it literally, constitutes the SUPREME decision making body during the run up to the Consulta Popular on April 15, and if anyone or any institution crosses it, they're history.)

So, what's the net effect on the country? At this point, the general perception of the media, plus people calling/writing in to the media on opinion polls is that Correa, the TSE and assorted allies are in the right on all of this, and that the old line partidocracia has brought this all on themselves. Aside from various political analysts and commentaristas in the print media, no one seems to be overly concerned by the fact that there's been a de facto dissolution of one of the three pillars of a democracy, or by the implications of that dissolution for the future of democracy here. Conventional wisdom on the street is that most of the fired Diputados were either corrupt, arrogant rats themselves, or beholden to party leaders who are, so hey, they had it coming, and the country WILL have a Consulta Popular, which will almost assuredly approve a Constituent Assembly charged with redesigning Ecuador's political landscape.

In the meantime, March events have left two ominous clouds hanging over the country.

First, events of the last three weeks have created a power vacuum resultant from the effective destruction of organized and meaningful political opposition to Correa in the context of national politics. The only formidable opposition figure around is Jaime Nebot, member of the PSC and mayor of Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil, but he, for the moment, has refused to become official leader of the PSC after Febres Cordero's departure, and he has limited his differences with Correa to regional issues concerning control of the Guyaquil power elite over Guayas province and its resources.

The leader of PRIAN, Alvaro Noboa, lives in Miami and throughout all of this, has contented himself with occasional, weird phone calls to his followers and inarticulate rantings against Correa (Chavez, dictaduria, etc.). Lucio Gutierrez, the corrupt ex-President who inadvertently triggered all of this by trying to (unconstitutionally) fire the TSE President, who he thought was his employee, has thoroughly discredited himself, his party, and the other parties by pulling exactly the corrupt political stunts that Correa had said he would.

En fin, of the three major parties who might present a threat, none of them have effective or willing leadership right now.

The second problem looming on the horizon concerns the precedent that this "March madness" has created in the political world here. No one has missed the fact that Correa has won this round and everyone is aware of the messianic righteousness of the man and his attitudes towards the political and economic establishments in this country. The problem is, that in winning, Correa and his allies rightly see themselves as being on a roll at the moment, and even more problematic, it appears that the Ecuadorian public is willing to go along with all this. The one possible redeeming factor, ironically, is that Ecuadorians are notoriously fickle, and they could very well turn on Correa and bring him down (the "riding the tiger" syndrome). Right now, though, Correa's very much in charge, so the interrogante in many minds is, what will Correa and cia do to gain control of the Constituent Assembly, and when (not if) they do, what will they do with it?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Bordering on Chaos

....With apologies to Andres Oppenheimer, I think Ecuador now holds claim to this state of affairs.

As of this hour (13h45), Congress, which tried to fire the President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) only to see the TSE fire 57 of its own Diputados (see my last two posts), and then see its own building closed off (to the fired Diputados only), attempted to meet in two different Quito hotels this morning, but failed to gain a quorum, so it's now milling around in much confusion, amidst recriminations, threats, and accusations against President Rafael Correa of attempted dictatorship.

Right now (and I mean for the next hour maybe, because I have to believe the PSC/PSP/PRIAN opposition is cooking up some more substantive response; they're not going to take effective closure of the Congress lying down), it looks like Correa's in the driver's seat. He has lots of public backing because of general disillusion and cynicism regarding Congress, the traditional rightist political parties and the political system in general and he's got lots of backing with respect to his proposed pleibescite (Consulta Popular) proposing a Constituent Assembly to change the political structures of the country.

That said, there's growing unease at what appears to be an escalating confrontation between the leftist Correa and his backers, and the traditional (right-wing) parties and their backers. The country is becoming increasingly polarized along political and regional (the coast versus the sierra, once again) lines, and aside from handwringing on the part of some pols and political analysts, there does not appear to be any group or individual at this point, who is willing or able to cool things down. When Congress (or some of its members, anyway) attempted to meet a second time at a second hotel after the first, failed try, demonstrators/provacateurs from extreme left wing student groups attacked some of the Diputados, injuring one, before the cops chased them off. I hope this is not a taste of things to come, but right now, things seem to be spiraling out of control.....

So, How Do You Feel About Being Fired by the Guys You Fired?

....Or, who the hell's in charge here?

That's what a lot in inquiring minds want to know here in Ecuador, today, Thursday, March 8.

To recap: At this point, we've got about 350 cops surrounding the Ecuadorian Congress this morning, with the mission of keeping 57 Diputados fired from their jobs by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) after/after the Diputados fired the President of the TSE from HIS job.

The Diputados maintain that they really didn't fire Jorge Acosta, the TSE President, they merely voted to send in a substitute President after Acosta voted with three other TSE members to approve a national pleibescite on the Constituent Assembly proposed by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.

The (ex-) Diputados from the three traditional, conservative parties, the Partido Social Cristiano (Leon Febres Cordero, Jaime Nebot, y Cynthia Viteri, leaders), the Partido Sociedad Patriotica (ex-Presidente Lucio Gutierrez and his brother, Gilmar), and the Partido para Renovacion Nacional (Alvaro Noboa) voted to dump Acosta, not because he voted for the pleibescite, but because he voted to approve the language on the pleibescite supplied by the Corrrea government, which asks voters to approve a Constituent Assembly with virtually unlimited authorities to restructure the Constitution and Government of Ecuador.

The PSC, PSP, and PRIAN fear, with good reason, that fully empowered Assembly could very well disolve Congress and write up a new Constitution which would revamp the political power structure so as to marginalize the traditonal, power parties. The TSE had given the Congress a chance to opine on Correa's Constituent Assembly idea in early February, when Correa first passed his Assembly proposal to the TSE for their clearance. The TSE elected to duck the issue at that point by passing the Correa proposal to Congress for their comments (but not approval).

Congress (the three traditional parties plus some small allied groups) promptly re-wrote Correa's initiative so as to narrowly circumscribe Constituent Assembly authorities and protect all traditional institutions (Congress, the Court system, the TSE, etc.) from the Assembly's ability to change anything; in essence, seeking the maintain the political status quo, while allowing the pleibescite and the National Assembly idea to continue, albeit in a castrated state.

Congress sent the rewritten pleibescite language back to the TSE expecting that that body would approve their language since all seven members of the TSE were named/approved by the political parties (NB: The parties' control of the TSE is one of the major problems that Correa hopes to resolve via the National Assembly). To the surprise of everyone, though, the Correa government sent a new version of its proposal directly to the TSE, and even more surprisingly, the TSE President, Jorge Acosta (appointed to the job by the PSP, although not a PSP member himself) voted along with three members of the TSE sympathetic to Correa, to approve the new, revised Correa language which Congress had not seen, and definitely did not accept.

Acosta and his allies on the TSE (and the Correa government, of course) now take to position that in electoral matters such as the pleibescite, the TSE has full authority to manage the process from now on out, independent of the Congress, and that any attempt by governmental officials (including Diputados) to interfere with the TSE in fulfillment of its mandate constitutes grounds for dismissal. When the traditional parties decided to "substitute" one of Gutierrez's/PSP made men for Acosta (they could not figure out a justification for firing him, and indeed, appear to have had no authorities to do so), Acosta and his allies on the TSE adroitly turned the tables on the Diputados and accused them of interfering in TSE matters and the conduct of the pleibescite, and (still with me on all of this?) fired the very people who proposed to fire Acosta.

Naturally, Correa and his team see Acosta as the perfect, maverick ally, and they've come to his support by 1) providing cops (Correa's Minister of Government controls the National Police) to surround the TSE and prevent Gutierrez's "substitute from entering TSE offices and replacing Acosta, and 2) providing the aforementioned 350 cops to surround the Congress and preventing the 57 Diputados who voted to get rid of Acosta from entering their/their offices.

....And that's where we stand right now. Congress had taken issue with the Correa language for the pleibescite earlier and sent a request for injunction against that language to the Constitutional Tribunal but the TC says it can't opine for 30 days or so. In retrospect, the traditional parties might have been smarter to stick with the TC appeal, but that's takena political back seat to the current stand-off between the Congress and the TSE.

Finally, informal media polls this morning show very strong backing for the TSE (and Correa) in face of Congressional moves; conventional wisdom in the street is that Congressional shenanigans of the sort seen in the last few days only serve to give Correa more credibility in his charges of "partidocracia politiqueria". The danger in this, of course, is that, in lending more political force to Correa and his group, the country could very well end up with a much more leftist Constituent Assembly and Constitution - the very thing that the traditional parties have very clumsily tried to head off.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

...And the Cat Fight Goes On

OK, it looks like the promising blog (well, it was promising for me, anyway) (part II) isn't getting off the ground, so, hell, I'LL say something about what's been going on lately.

Starting from today and working backwards, just to the beginning of this month:

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (a group of seven magistrates selected by the Ecuadorian Congress, and empowered to oversee electoral processes for the next two years, or next election - including the pleibescite on the Constituent Assembly, see below) came out today saying that they're contemplating firing 52 Congressional Diputados for having approving the firing of the TSE's President, Jorge Acosta yesterday.

Acosta was fired yesterday by 52 guys and gals from the three largest political parties in Congress (Lucio Gutirrez's PSP, Alvaro Noboa's PRIAN, and Jamie Nebot's PSC) because he cast the deciding/decisive vote (four to three) for the TSE in approving the pleibescite for the Constituent Assembly, and fixing the date for the Pleibescite for April 15. Correa's Minister of Economy and Finances has already set aside funds for the Pleibescite (about $20m) and administratively, at least, the thing's on track to happen. Politically, though, it's another matter, because the statute approved by Acosta and company on March 1 contains all the wording approved by President Rafael Correa and his supporters, and ignores the wording approved by Congress in late February.

3) What's the big difference in the wording? Without going into all the details regarding who members of the Constituent Assmbly can be and how they can get there (more later on this), the big point of contention is the authority of the Assembly to mandate changes in the system of government here. Correa asked for (and the TSE approved) a blank check approach giving the Assembly and its members plenipotentiary powers to do just about anything they want in terms of deleting/changing/establishing governmental institutions (including Congress itself, the entire court system, the TSE, etc.). Congress, not surprisingly, approved a much narrower concept, empowering a Constituent Assembly to make changes, just as long as they made no/no changes to the Congress and the other institutions of government - in essence mandating no change of exactly the kind that Correa y cia posited in their campaign to power.

At this point then, there appears to be the classic train wreck coming up of an immovable object standing up to an irresistible force. The traditional political parties in Congress (the PSP, PSC and PRIAN, plus assorted allies) are doing everything they can to block, delay, or derail the Constituent Assembly process, or failing that, geld the CA such that it will be unable to produce any substantive changes in the way politics are done, particularly in Congress, and during elections.

In doing this, of course, the traditional parties (the "partidocracia" as Correa calls them) are giving more and more credibility to Correa and the points he makes about them being corrupt, unscrupulous types who mean to keep control of principal governmental (non-executive branch) institutions.

Those same institutions - the courts, the TSE, the Contralor de la Republica (chief auditor of the entire government), the Fiscal General (kind of like the Solicitor General of the U.S. but not the Attorney General, which is controlled by the executive branch) have all been controlled/manipulated by the partidocracia over the years to favor friends/attack enemies, and the system has served the power pols very well - and now it's all at risk because of Correa.

Correa has correctly identified this whole arrangement - the partidocracia, and its control of political and budgetary levers - as the root of most of the problems afflicting politics, the economy, and the whole country. Most of the electorate agrees with him on this, and in fact, polls show support for the Constituent Assembly at around 80-82%. That support notwithstanding, the partidocracia has no intention of participating in its own demise, and hence all of the roadblocks, strategems, scheming, and general political skulduggery on their part to slow or stop the reform process.

The events of the last couple of days - the firing of Acosta (who was named by Lucio Gutierrez, btw) and response of the TSE itself - stem from the fact that the TSE has always been controlled completely by the partidocracia, and now this act of political independence/defiance on the part of one of Gutirrez's made men has handed the advantage to Correa. Gutierrez and his allies had hoped that by firing Acosta that they could simply reverse the March 1 decision taken under Acosta's leadership and thus hobble the CA process further. They hadn't counted, though, on the fact that Acosta would not roll over and leave; instead he's stayed in the TSE, gotten Correa's government to prohibit the entry of another guy named by Gutierrez to take his job. At this point, then, around 5:30 pm, this date, we've got a standoff between Correa and partidocracia... More tomorrow.....