Friday, November 30, 2007

Equatorial Politics

If you're already sick of American electoral politics, perhaps you'd like to hear what's going on elsewhere.

Yesterday, Ecuador's Constitutional Assembly convened, and already the instability of South American democracy is being illustrated. A poll shows that 62% of Ecuadorians say they don't know what it means that the Assembly intends to exercise "full powers." Of those who say they do know, they are divided on the answer. Does it mean they're "over everyone," that they can "change everyone from the president on down," or that they can "make decisions and change laws without consulting anyone else?" Not that these definitions are any clearer or particularly distinct. Unfortunately, the article, while lamenting how confused the people are, doesn't tell what the right answer is, perhaps because nobody really knows.

The "full powers" language, as I understand it, was inserted into the ballot language after it had already been approved by the Congress. Congressional leaders clearly say that the Assembly doesn't have the power to dismiss Congress. This, however, is President Correa's majority party's first order of business. While party officials have tried to be careful in their language, some assembly members say that because of the Assembly's "full powers," it is incompatible with "a Congress like we have" and that the Congress has been "delegitimized."

Now I get that when you're rewriting a constitution, the old system system is going to be in conflict with the new system you're writing. So it seems that you have two options: either you let the current system keep operating, faultily, until you have the new constitution finished, or you completely dispense with the old system, set up a temporary, and probably limited, replacement, and establish your new system when the constitution is done. What's troubling is that the Assembly is eager to take over the Congress's legislative and financial functions, but there's no talk of terminating the President while they decide what kind of presidency to have. Of course it's the President's party that's booting the Congress, which makes it clear that this is all just a really involved partisan power grab. It's not really about establishing a better system; it's about eliminating the opposition and codifying the new administration's power. The procedural and structural justifications are totally contrived.

However, going along with the Assembly's wishes without fully complying, Congress voted to take a one-month recess, as the current constitution allows, leaving open the possibility of returning January 5th, as the current constitution requires. They'll let the Assembly go about it's business, although one deputy declared that "the little boys of Chavez's little boy [Correa's assembly members] don't know anything about legislative procedures," that all their laws will be illegitimate, and that "the citizens don't have to obey them."

The problem is, there is no ultimate authority that everyone agrees on. The current constitution doesn't establish a system to finally adjudicate disagreements, and while the plebiscite to establish the assembly should have established an ultimate power, Correa was only able to slip it past Congress by telling them it wasn't going to be all-powerful, then changing it by adding the vague "full power" language before the people voted on it.

Fortunately, there is such popular support for these changes that Congress may not put up much of a fight. Despite having no idea what "full powers" means, 62% of Ecuadorians have confidence in the Acuerdo PAIS-run Assembly. Perhaps when they ratify a new constitution in a year, it will be written tightly enough that it's clear where the final authority lies. The big question is whether the Assembly can do that through a carefully thought-through system of checks and balances, or whether they'll find it easier to give the final say to the President, who has enthralled the people enough to take that power without much objection.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Craig, that was an easy read. Have mercy!

Craig said...

Didn't want to be long-winded, so I went for density. I guess it is a pretty complicated situation!