Ecuador assembly loosens term limits for Correa

QUITO, July 7 Mon Jul 7, 2008 8:38pm BST

QUITO, July 7 (Reuters) - President Rafael Correa could stay in office until 2017 under a constitutional proposal to relax term limits that was approved over the weekend by Ecuador's assembly.

The 130-member assembly lifted a constitutional restriction that bars a president from being re-elected to a second consecutive term. A president would still not be allowed to serve more than two consecutive terms.

The proposal, which must be ratified in a referendum, could allow the popular Correa to stay in office far longer than his last three predecessors who were toppled by popular demonstrations and opposition-led legislatures

In Ecuador, the presidential term lasts four years.

The widely popular Correa, who was elected in November 2006 and took office in January 2007, is expected to run for re-election early next year, and his allies in the assembly say the proposal would allow him to run once again after that.

They say his re-election in 2009 would count as his first election because it would be the first under the new constitution.

Critics and opposition politicians say Correa, a leftist who took office on pledges to help the poor, is seeking dictatorial powers in the world's top banana exporter.

Other popular Latin American leaders such as Colombia's Alvaro Uribe and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez have also eased re-election rules to stay in office longer.

They may also promote further changes to prolong their time in power in what some political analysts worry could undermine weak democratic institutions in the region.

The assembly controlled by Correa's allies has approved constitutional reforms to boost the former economy minister's political powers and increase his government control over the oil-producing country's economy.

The new constitution needs to be ratified by Ecuadoreans in a vote expected in the last quarter of this year. The assembly, which is rewriting the constitution and also acts as Congress, has to pass nearly 400 reforms before its July 26 deadline and faces a tough vote to ratify the document, pollsters say.

(Reporting by Alonso Soto; editing by Saul Hudso and Cynthia Ostermann)