UNTIL last week Ecuadoreans thought they knew what their president, Rafael Correa, was planning. At his bidding, the National Assembly would approve a package of constitutional reforms in December, overriding doubts about their legality and popular demands for a referendum. Mr Correa would then exploit one of those changes—an end to term limits—to run for re-election in 2017.
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Now he has shaken that assumption. On November 13th he said that anyone currently in office who has already served two terms, including himself, should not be allowed to run in the next election. The ending of term limits and other constitutional reforms, which boost the powers of the presidency, will go ahead, but Mr Correa may not be in office to exercise them. That has prompted a frenzy of speculation about what Ecuador’s wily left-wing president really has in mind. The most popular theory is that he intends to hand over the presidency, Vladimir Putin-style, to an ally, who would carry out his wishes and make way for him to return to office in 2021. He has singled out Lenín Moreno, a former vice-president, as a possible successor.
Mr Correa may have changed his plans because he prefers not to be in charge at a time of economic weakness. Along with other South American countries, Ecuador is suffering from the end of the global commodities boom. The IMF expects GDP to shrink by 0.6% this year and to grow by a scant 0.1% in 2016. After nine spendthrift budgets under Mr Correa, the government cannot afford a fiscal stimulus. He may prefer to let a surrogate deal with the unpleasantness that lies ahead.
If that is the plan, it is risky. One danger for Mr Correa is that his stand-in will not be as pliant as he hopes. Mr Moreno, who shares his ideology but is more pragmatic, is popular in his own right. A new centre-left party, Democracia Sí, is trying to recruit him as its presidential candidate.
Then there is the risk that Mr Correa’s handpicked candidate will lose. Although no opposition politician looks like a strong challenger, economic weakness could help one emerge, warns Luis Verdesoto, a political scientist. Another worry is that Mr Correa’s party, Alianza País, will lose its majority in the legislature, rendering the next president a lame duck, a problem that has bedevilled governments since democracy was restored in 1979. Without Mr Correa to lead it, the party fears decimation. His leadership “must continue”, demanded Gabriela Rivadeneira, the legislature’s president.
A weakened presidency is not what Mr Correa has in mind. Since 2011 he has in effect controlled the judiciary. The proposed constitutional changes would strip the office of the comptroller-general of some of its powers to audit government finances. Carlos Pólit, who now holds the office and does not often openly defy Mr Correa, calls the plan a “step backwards”. Under the amended constitution, communications would be a “public service”, giving the government the power further to restrict press freedoms, which have already been curtailed. The changes would also allow it to deploy the military to “complement” the police in fighting crime, without declaring a state of emergency.
In recent protests against the constitutional reforms and planned tax rises, police and soldiers beat and arbitrarily arrested dozens of unarmed people, alleges Human Rights Watch, an NGO based in the United States. The authorities are not properly investigating these reports, the group says. The government’s critics fear that the new constitutional provisions will encourage such abuses. The government insists it was the protesters who behaved violently.
Polls show that 80% of Ecuadoreans want the amendments put to a referendum, which suggests that they would be voted down. The pliant constitutional court has ruled that a referendum is unnecessary. Mr Correa has left Ecuadoreans guessing whether he will voluntarily move out of the Carondelet Palace in 2017. Few doubt he will remain the most powerful person in the country.