On July 31, 2009 Ecuador inaugurated its National Assembly, the first under the country’s newest Constitution. After a Constitutional Assembly approved a draft version in July 2008, Ecuadorians voted in favor of the document the following September. The Constitution is the third in twelve years. Ten days after the Assembly’s first session, on August 10, 2009, President Rafael Correa was sworn in for a second term, which will be his first under the new Constitution. He will be eligible to run for immediate reelection after he finishes his current four-year term. Under Correa, Ecuador has seen some degree of stability, as he has been the only president in a decade to finish his term. His three elected predecessors were ousted and the country had six presidents during the decade before he took office in 2007. Yet this relative stability has come at the expense of Ecuador’s liberal democracy and the division of powers. In this context, the newly inaugurated Assembly will face many challenges, including its relation with the executive branch and maintaining a business friendly environment. Its work will determine whether Ecuador’s institutions will increasingly become stronger and uphold the rule of law or whether the executive branch will continue to eclipse power as it has been the case until now.
The first challenge the Assembly will face relates to implementing the new Constitution while maintaining its independence from the executive branch. The Assembly succeeded an interim legislative body that produced legislation, following a mandate from transitory articles in the Constitution. The lack of debate on issues the interim legislative body known as Congresillo discussed was the main criticism it received from the opposition and analysts. The composition of the Congresillo explains the lack of debate. Correa’s supporters, agglutinated in the political alliance PAIS, constituted a majority in the Congresillo. Moreover, there was no clear independence between Congresillo and the executive branch. The president dominated the debates and Congresillo acted as Correa’s subordinate. The National Assembly may confront similar criticism as Correa’s political coalition –PAIS- has 48% of the seats and may be able to garner constant support from a pivotal group –AED. If PAIS and AED effectively work together, they will have enough votes to approve any piece of legislation without reaching compromises with a fragmented opposition. If there are no compromises, bills discussed in the newly National Assembly may be perceived as only echoing the President’s will, which will affect the Assembly’s credibility and its independence from the executive branch.
A second challenge relates to the Assembly and the business environment. The Constitution is skeptical about the role of a market economy and gives room to wide state intervention, affecting businesses and the business environment. The Constitution mentions that it is the role of the state to set prices and intervene whenever necessary to uphold constitutional rights. Yet the Constitution also supports efficiency and competition in the market. It will be the role of the Assembly, especially of those members from the opposition, to uphold those few principles of a market economy to effectively attract private investment, provide an environment that is friendly to business, and efficiently improve Ecuadorian economic development. In particular, the Assembly’s work in upholding these principles will also be a function of how independent it could be from the executive branch. Unfortunately, there is not a good precedent as evidenced by Congresillo’s work, the current Assembly composition, and the potential alliance between PAIS and AED. In addition, Rafael Correa acts as a light carbon copy of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
Ecuador’s National Assembly, in light of a powerful president and a Constitution that demotes the market economy, faces many challenges. The opposition, as well as Correa’s less radical supporters, including members of the pivotal AED coalition, may play an important role in upholding the Constitution and maintaining Ecuador’s weak democracy. The opposition will need to work together to achieve this goal and look beyond Correa’s term to defend effectively the few market-oriented values the Constitution includes to bring about stability and progress to the country. Whether it is able to achieve it or not will be a function of how much power Correa will seek to accumulate and the degree of potential standoffs between the executive and the legislative branch.