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Ecuador referendum boosts president in battle with ex-mentor

February 5, 2018

Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno, right, and vice president Alejandra Vicuna sing as they celebrate that his proposal of Referendum has been approved by Ecuadoreans in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018. Ecuadoreans have voted overwhelmingly to limit presidents to two terms in a nationwide referendum that was seen as a critical test of former President Rafael Correa's enduring political strength. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — With a fresh victory in hand, Ecuadoreans will be looking for President Lenin Moreno to move beyond the political duel with his domineering predecessor and focus his attention on the nation’s stagnant economy.

Ecuadoreans voted by a landslide in a nationwide referendum Sunday to limit presidents to just one re-election, barring three-time former President Rafael Correa from returning to power.

The measure was approved by an almost 2-to-1 margin, sending the strongest signal yet that the Andean nation is ready to shift gears away from Correa, the leftist strongman who has dominated the nation’s politics over the last decade. But how far Moreno will diverge from Correa’s agenda remains to be seen.

While Moreno has begun building bridges with the private sector shunned by Correa, analysts say he has stopped short of instituting the sort of economic reforms needed to jumpstart a sluggish economy. He also remains dependent on Correa’s allies in congress to usher through legislation.

“He’s now put behind him, in large part, this ongoing political battle,” said Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow. “From here, the government will now need to turn its attention back to its economic agenda.”

Moreno, who was a protege of Correa until taking office last year, hailed the results as a triumph for Ecuador’s democracy, while Correa warned they would usher in a new period of instability. The two men have been feuding bitterly almost since Moreno took office last year and quickly extended an olive branch to business leaders, indigenous groups and others who were bullied by Correa during his rule.

“The days of confrontation are behind us,” a triumphant Moreno said in televised remarks with his Cabinet at the presidential palace. “It’s time to embrace each other.”

Correa tried to put a positive spin on the results, saying the 36 percent of voters opposing term limits show that his political movement remains the most-dominant in Ecuador. To prevail, Moreno relied heavily on an alliance with conservative opposition parties whose support going forward may be in doubt.

“It’s going to be very difficult for a mediocre person like Lenin Moreno to keep everyone happy,” Correa told Venezuela’s Telesur network in an interview following the vote. “The only thing that unites these people is their hatred of Correa, not even love of country.”

Six other government-backed proposals on the ballot, some of them seeking to reduce Correa’s influence, also easily passed. One would give Moreno more authority over a council that determines who can lead some of the nation’s most important institutions. Another would bar officials convicted of corruption from seeking office — a clause that apparently would apply to Vice President Jorge Glas, another Correa ally who was recently convicted of corruption.

The referendum bucks a trend in several Latin American nations, where leaders have pushed for constitutional amendments that would let them stay in power longer, sometimes indefinitely.

In Bolivia, a court recently paved the way for left-leaning President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term despite a voter referendum that rejected it. Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, is running for office in an election that opposition leaders consider illegitimate. And in Honduras, conservative President Juan Orlando Hernandez was recently sworn in for a second term after the Supreme Court ruled that a constitutional ban on re-election violated his rights.

Correa governed Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, winning the loyalty of millions of poor Ecuadoreans with generous health and social programs. But the combative leader feuded with the business community, the news media, environmentalists and indigenous groups, pushing through measures that consolidated executive power and expanded mineral exploration in indigenous territories.

After leaving office, he moved to his wife’s native Belgium, but recently returned to rally against Moreno.

Moreno, a paraplegic since being shot in 1998, is enjoying a near 70 percent approval rating.

Since being elected, he has met with the nation’s business leaders in what analysts consider an important sign he will be more open than his predecessor in engaging with the private sector. Analysts project Ecuador’s economy will grow only slightly in 2018 and the business sector has been pushing for a deeper fiscal adjustment.

Grais-Targow noted that despite his different approach, Moreno remains a leftist in ideology and has shown mixed signals on how far he will diverge from Correa’s economic policy.

“We don’t have much evidence of him delivering on those talks,” she said of Moreno’s meetings with the private sector.

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