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Ecuador Votes On Presidential Term Limits


Nearly all of Latin America is ruled by democratically elected governments. But there's a growing concern that the constant re-election of Latin American presidents might be leading to a new era of authoritarian rule. John Otis reports that Ecuador is trying to resist the trend.



JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: That's Ecuador's president, Lenin Moreno, speaking in the farm town of Santo Domingo. He's drumming up support for a referendum on Sunday to change the country's constitution. The main reform, if approved, would ban unlimited presidential re-election.


MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At a news conference, Moreno says, "I don't believe in indefinite re-election. I think it's an aberration. It distorts democracy." Many analysts say that Ecuador's democracy was distorted for the past decade under former President Rafael Correa. During his three terms in office, Correa and his ruling party dominated all three branches of government. Correa cracked down on the press by signing one of the most restrictive media laws in the hemisphere. He also engineered a constitutional tweak to allow unlimited re-election for public officials.

Some Ecuadorians, like graphic designer Christian Baca, came to view Correa as a dictator in the making.

CHRISTIAN BACA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Correa took full advantage of his power because there was no oversight," he says.

One result was corruption. Several aides to Correa are under investigation. And one of them has been sentenced to six years in prison for accepting $13 million in bribes. The scandals dragged down Correa's popularity. And he sat out the 2017 election, which was won by Moreno, his former vice president. Still, Correa was widely expected to seek a fourth presidential term in 2021.

But in a dramatic about-face, President Moreno has turned against Correa. Moreno now hopes to sideline Correa for good through Sunday's referendum. One of the seven proposed constitutional reforms would limit presidents to just two terms in office. Correa is now fighting for his political life.


MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The former president is barnstorming the country, telling voters to reject the referendum. Correa claims that term limits violate the rights of voters to choose the most qualified candidates. Elsewhere, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have all scrapped presidential term limits. But experts say that in all three countries, presidents have undermined democratic checks and balances and now seem unwilling to give up power. The issue of term limits has also roiled Honduras. It led to a military-backed coup in 2009 and violent protests last year, as President Juan Orlando Hernandez sought re-election.


MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Amid so much strife, President Moreno tells people in Santo Domingo that it's time for Ecuadorians to reign in power-hungry politicians. Polls are predicting that they will approve term limits.


MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: But just to make sure, Moreno, who often sings in public, breaks into a ballad about the virtues of voting yes in Sunday's referendum. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Santo Domingo, Ecuador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.