March 8, 2007 / 5:27 PM / 12 years ago

Ecuador Congress halts session in constitution row

QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador’s Congress suspended its session on Thursday after police surrounded it to enforce a court ruling to fire 57 lawmakers in a power struggle between President Rafael Correa and the opposition.

Demonstrators try to avoid a congressman leaving the parking lot of a hotel, a day after the Supreme Electoral Tribunal fired 57 lawmakers from the National Congress, in Quito March 8, 2007. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

Correa hopes to limit his rivals’ influence with an April 15 referendum aimed at drafting constitutional reforms, but he faces growing resistance inside Congress.

The feud highlights Correa’s troubles governing a country where three presidents have been ousted in a decade, but the left-winger is highly popular after promising to take on lawmakers who many blame for Ecuador’s chronic instability.

“My countrymen, you have a true government that will not fail you,” Correa told a cheering crowd inside the presidential palace. “There is no going back on the referendum.”

Police carrying riot shields and batons greeted the 28 lawmakers who showed up before Congress’ president cancelled the morning session because not enough of the total 100 members were present.

Local television showed protesters beating a lawmaker in a hotel car park, and another sped away as demonstrators kicked and banged his car. Neither was seriously hurt.

The country’s constitutional court on Thursday said it would consider a motion filed earlier by Congress to halt the April 15 referendum. The court may take up to 60 days to make a ruling on the motion.

Congress initially approved Correa’s plan for a reform referendum, but opposition legislators now say he made changes to its text without their approval and want to vote halted.

On Tuesday, 52 lawmakers voted to fire the election court’s president, Jorge Acosta, in an apparent move to delay the referendum and secure an opposition majority in the court.

The election court hit back on Wednesday, ruling the 52 and five others had violated the constitution and would be stripped of their political rights for one year.

‘TOTALITARIAN’

“We will call local mayors and local officials to support our front against this totalitarian government,” opposition lawmaker Carlos Larreategui said.

He said the fired members will appeal to the Organisation of American States for help to invalidate the court ruling.

Andres Paez, a centre-left congressman sympathetic to Correa, said pro-government Congress members had started talks with opposition lawmakers to seek a peaceful solution.

Correa, a political outsider elected in November, has no official representatives in Congress. His foes say he wants to bypass the legislature and consolidate presidential authority with a special assembly on constitutional reforms as his ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, did after his 1998 election.

“For the first time we are seeing a weak Congress and a government that has the upper hand,” said Adrian Bonilla, director of Ecuador’s branch of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. “I believe the government will probably win this time.”

Correa, a former economy minister, has rattled Wall Street and Washington with plans to reform foreign debt, rewrite oil contracts and end an agreement allowing the U.S. military to use an airbase in Ecuador for counter-narcotics operations.

Political parties often fight for appointments that will allow them to control the key electoral and constitutional courts in Ecuador, South America’s No. 5 oil producer.

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