QUITO – In Ecuador's shantytowns, where stray dogs rifle through garbage and mud-caked children in torn clothes play soccer on dirt tracks, supporting the president's constitutional reform plans is a way to hit back at the old elite. Polls predict Ecuadoreans will Sunday overwhelmingly back a proposal by leftist President Rafael Correa to set up an assembly to rewrite the constitution, a move that could curb the powers of a Congress widely seen as self-serving.
“He is going to change things in this country, because he can outsmart all those corrupt politicians,” said truck-driver Manuel Ordonez, 45, in Quito's crime-ridden slum of Pisuli.
“The assembly will bring the change we need,” he said, perched on the roof of his dingy one-room home where his mother was boiling a corn-cob for dinner.
Correa, who took office in January, says the proposed assembly could cut the influence of congressmen in the Andean nation's judiciary and state companies, and force them to live in the poor constituencies they represent.
In Pisuli, which clings to a bleak hillside overlooking a glitzy residential district, many are unsure what the new assembly would do but back it as the brainchild of the dashing, charismatic Correa. “I see hope in him, hope we never had,” said Gloria Sanchez, 57, a tiny mother of five who collects scrap metal for a living. “I really don't know what a new assembly can do, but we need change. I trust Correa,” she added, impervious to a chill, misty drizzle soaking the world's second-highest capital.
Although a Cedatos-Gallup poll found 63 percent of voters in the world's top banana exporter would back the new assembly, 98 percent did not fully understand what powers it would have.
If Ecuadoreans vote “yes” Sunday, there will be an election for assembly members later this year, most likely in September or October.
Correa, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has ruffled Wall Street with his vows to renegotiate oil deals and the national debt.
But while the opposition warns in television campaigns that Correa is turning into a dictator and centering power around himself like Chavez, poncho-clad Indians have marched through poor mountain hamlets with placards saying “Vote Yes”.
“Correa is the new outsider who battles the establishment and that has made him very attractive for Ecuadoreans,” said Carlos Cordova, a pollster with Cedatos-Gallup.
“People identify with him and he is still enjoying his honeymoon after only three months on the job. His popularity is fueling support for the assembly in Sunday's referendum.” But analysts warn that Correa could run into trouble if old foes such as former President Lucio Gutierrez, who was ousted in 2005 amid street protests and turmoil in Congress, get a strong foothold in the assembly, or if powerful Indian groups feel sidelined.
Ecuadorean politics are extremely volatile and Correa is the eighth president in a decade. Even the decision to hold the referendum sparked a bitter dispute in which lawmakers were fired and fought with the police.
Three presidents have been ousted by congressional and popular unrest in the last 10 years.
Michael Shifter, a Latin America analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank, said playing the populist card might not end Ecuador's hair-trigger volatility as Correa wants.
“I'm not sure the constituent assembly is the solution to Ecuador's fragmentation, particularity for the way Correa antagonizes the political forces,” he said.
“Correa's confrontational style may play well politically but not solve the country's instability.”