* Correa claims victory, opponents accept defeat
* Count goes through night but little doubt over result
* Vote to boost president's power base, worries foes
* Foreign investors unlikely to face any new measures
By Eduardo Garcia and Alexandra Valencia
QUITO, May 8 President Rafael Correa vowed a
shake-up of Ecuador's courts after a referendum seemed to
strengthen his grip on the OPEC member nation while heightening
foes' fears of autocratic rule.
Ballots being counted into Sunday showed the leftist leader
ahead on all 10 reforms he put to Ecuadoreans in a referendum
that is seen as an early indicator of Correa's prospects in a
possible 2013 re-election bid in the Andean country.
With 20 percent of ballots counted, the 'Yes' vote's range
for the questions was 45 to 51 percent compared with 39 to 44
percent for 'No'.
But even before complete results, Correa declared victory,
opposition leaders accepted defeat and government supporters
began celebrating a few hours after voting ended on Saturday.
"We have to make big changes in the next 18 months. We're
going to face the opposition of mafias within the judiciary,"
said Correa, 48, whose declared intention with the referendum
was to eradicate corruption and inefficiency in courts.
Full coverage of Ecuador's referendum [ID:nECUADOR]
Political risks in Ecuador [ID:nRISKEC]
In office since 2007, Correa should now be empowered to
name one of three members of a panel charged with reforming the
judiciary and appointing judges to the Supreme Court and lower
courts. Allies will effectively choose the other two members.
Other reforms should allow the government to limit media
ownership and hold journalists "responsible" for stories --
moves critics say threaten freedom of expression.
Victory should also help Correa to rein in dissent in the
ruling Alianza Pais movement and better control parliament.
"Correa's victory makes it difficult to talk in any serious
way about the separation of powers in Ecuador," said a U.S.
analyst of the region, Michael Shifter.
Having won two presidential elections, Correa is widely
expected to try again, although he has said he may prefer to
retire with his wife to her homeland in Belgium.
"It's a little too soon to say it's a done deal but I have
talked to our sources in Quito and they said they thought this
was going to be the beginning of the 2013 campaign," said
Eurasia Group consultancy analyst Risa Grais-Targow.
"TIME FOR MEDITATION"
Analysts do not expect Correa to take any dramatic new
measures against foreign investors, whom he has already largely
strong-armed into deals more favorable to the state.
"I think in the oil sector he's really already gone as far
as he can go," Grais-Targow said, referring to the recent
renegotiation of foreign companies' contracts in Ecuador.
The energetic and eloquent Correa forms part of a regional
alliance of leftist Latin American presidents that includes
Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Constant critics of U.S. "imperialism," they have sought to
boost state revenues from oil and mineral resources to fund
Major opposition figures acknowledged Correa's win but said
he should take a conciliatory attitude given that the margin
did not appear to be as big as the government had forecast.
"It wasn't a thrashing," the president's brother and critic
Fabricio Correa told Reuters. "It's time for meditation not
Correa's big spending on schools, roads and hospitals has
kept him popular with the poor and lower-middle classes.
"People have seen some real improvements in their lives.
They've doubled healthcare spending as a percentage of GDP,"
said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and
Policy Research think-tank in Washington.
Rivals accuse Correa of having an autocratic streak akin to
Chavez in Venezuela and fear he may use the referendum boost to
clamp down on foes. But Correa, the strongest leader in decades
in a country notorious for political instability, denies that.
"We are here to change our Ecuador in peace and democracy,"
(Additional reporting by Jose Llangari and Santiago Silva in
Quito, Mica Rosenberg in Bogota; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne;
Editing by John O'Callaghan)