Ecuador vote bans betting, revamps courts

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa claimed victory Saturday night for a 10-question referendum that will reshape the country's laws, doing everything from banning bullfighting to preventing media owners from running other businesses.
Ecuadoreans in the coastal city of Guayaquil queue to vote Saturday on 10 referendum questions covering judicial issues, media ownership and bullfighting. (Camilo Pareja/AFP/Getty Images)

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa claimed victory Saturday night for a 10-question referendum that will reshape the country's laws, doing everything from banning bullfighting to preventing media owners from running other businesses.

Correa celebrated Saturday's vote — what he called the last triumph of "this dream that is called citizen's revolution" — as exit polls suggested voters approved all the questions by greater than 60 per cent.

President Rafael Correa celebrates early results from Saturday's referendum. ((Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images))

Official results showed a narrower victory margin. With 25 per cent counted early Sunday, all questions were shown winning but with an average of closer to 52 per cent of valid votes.

The slow count notwithstanding, an Organization of American States observer team said voting appeared to go smoothly and there was no evidence of fraud.

Correa, a U.S.-trained economist who was elected in 2006, has brought unusual stability to a small, traditionally volatile South American country. 

Critics say he's following an electoral playbook written by his Venezuelan ally, President Hugo Chavez, in getting the constitution rewritten and undermining organized political opposition. Re-elected two years ago, Correa can run again in 2013.

Some questions on Saturday's ballot were straightforward, such as whether to ban bullfighting and gambling. Others were complex, requiring multiple-page annexes.

Two of the most controversial would bar owners of news media from having other commercial interests and create a government media oversight panel.

Aims to 'diffuse power'

Opponents say the referendum consolidated power in favour of Correa.

"I think it's a duplicitous ballot that curbs liberties in which I profoundly believe," said Enrique Espinoza Ortiz, a 77-year-old lawyer who voted in a middle-class district of the capital, Quito. "I'm not against the government. But this time I just said no."

Former president Lucio Gutierrez, a fierce Correa opponent, said Correa was using the vote "to take justice by force and dominate the news media."

Correa called approval of the media ownership question "a historic deed."

"We are going to diffuse the power in this country," he said.

On Twitter, Correa's office quoted him as saying the news media, bankers and some in the Roman Catholic Church were "our great adversaries" on Saturday.

Correa proposed the referendum in January, three months after a violent, seemingly spontaneous police revolt  over benefit cuts that he called a coup attempt.

Much like Chavez, he has faced a largely hostile press. Since February, he has filed defamation charges against five journalists, seeking million-dollar fines and jail terms for some.

One key ballot question called for dissolving Ecuador's judicial oversight council and replacing it with a temporary body that would redo a court system that's long been submissive to the will of the executive. Another would allow authorities to detain suspected criminals longer without filing charges.

Correa enjoys a 65-per-cent approval rating in a country that in the decade prior to his election saw three presidents, most recently Gutierrez, ousted in popular revolts. His populist programs, such as $35 monthly payments to nearly two million poor families, construction of low-income housing and a commitment to universal free education, have boosted his popularity in this small Andean nation of 14.3 million people.

Many who voted yes said it was out of esteem for his government.

"We Ecuadoreans should be committed and help out if we want things to change," said Maria Lourdes Silva, a 43-year-old cosmetics saleswoman.