Quito, Ecuador: Ecuador's Congress approved holding a referendum on whether to create an assembly to rewrite the Constitution, bowing to demands by the new leftist president who is seeking to weaken the nation's traditional political parties.
Rafael Correa, an admirer of Venezuela's anti-US firebrand President Hugo Chavez, wants the assembly to rewrite the constitution to limit the power of the parties, which he blames for this small Andean nation's problems.
"The fight is just starting," Correa said in a statement. He called on Ecuadoreans "to fulfil their role in history, crushing the political mafias at the ballot boxes".
The referendum initiative was approved 57-1 in the 100-member Congress on Tuesday. Most opposition lawmakers abandoned the session before the vote in protest, calling the measure unconstitutional.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal said later on Tuesday the referendum will be held on April 15. Ecuador has been marked by political instability, with seven presidents in the last decade. More than 60 per cent of the population lives in poverty. Correa, 43, who took office on January 15, won a November election run-off as a charismatic outsider who pledged to lead a "citizens' revolution" against a political establishment widely seen as corrupt and incompetent.
Opposition lawmakers said the referendum vote was illegal because the constitution says reforms must be made by Congress, not by a special assembly. "We're going to have generalised chaos throughout the country starting tomorrow," said Federico Perez, the only congressman who stayed to vote against the measure. Perez added that his many opposition lawmakers were intimidated by pro-government protesters.
Nearly 1,000 people gathered outside Congress, including hundreds of highland Indians in traditional clothing, to demand lawmakers approve the referendum. And last month Correa's backers stormed the building to pressure for the vote, forcing a suspension of the session.
"How is it possible that under pressure ... with the pretext that we need reforms that we all want, the constitution is violated?" Perez said. But Interior Minister Gustavo Larrea called the vote a "triumph of the citizenry". "The popular pressure led a bloc of lawmakers to understand that this is a popular demand," he said. The country's highest electoral court had ruled that lawmakers must decide on whether to call the referendum, which critics say is an attempt by Correa to consolidate power in the presidency.
The measure passed with the support of leftist and centre-left parties and legislators belonging to former President Lucio Gutierrez's populist party. Gutierrez was driven from power in 2005 by street protests, in which Correa participated. His party has 24 lawmakers, the second-largest bloc in Congress.