QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador’s popular President Rafael Correa is expected to win a referendum next week that his opponents -- including his brother -- say will extend his control over the judiciary and restrict the media.
A victory would reinforce Correa’s lead over his often hapless rivals who are expected to run for president in 2013 elections in the Andean nation of 14 million people.
All polls show Correa, 48, will sail to victory in the May 7 vote on 10 reforms aimed at overhauling an obsolete justice system and limiting media ownership, as well as rules banning activities such as bull-fighting and gambling in casinos.
The reforms will give Correa and his allies more say in the selection of Supreme Court judges, a move the president says is needed so the state can stamp out graft in courts.
Correa is an economist who has enjoyed high popularity since taking office in 2007. His image as a strong leader concerned by poverty and injustice plays well in a country tired of years of economic and political turmoil.
Like his socialist ally Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Correa has already won a string of national votes and consolidated his power with a new constitution, while rewriting rules for mining and oil companies to increase state income.
His opponents, among them a former coup-leader and a journalist turned politician, have so far failed to convince many voters to oppose his proposed reforms as they look for backing to run for president in 2013.
Lately, another presidential hopeful has come to the fore, Correa’s older brother Fabricio, a wealthy businessman embroiled in a corruption scandal who has called on voters to stop his brother’s “fascist” ambitions.
“The president is convinced he’s the salvation for the country and is taking steps to implement a totalitarian system,” Fabricio Correa told Reuters. “He always thought of himself as the Messiah the country needed.”
Once close, the feud between the two men has put raucous Fabricio in the limelight as a leading opposition figure, despite him having little political experience other than helping his brother run the campaign that took him to office.
“Now that you’re president you control the pitch, you control the ball, it wouldn’t be good if you get to control the judges, you ought to play clean,” he says in a YouTube campaign video where he appears wearing soccer goalkeeper’s outfit.
Correa’s allies have lashed out at opposition leaders, saying they are vying for media attention rather than campaigning against the proposed reforms.
“I’ve seen adverts on TV in which they do not lay out their reasons to vote ‘no’, they just want to show pictures of the potential candidates for 2013,” Correa’s enforcer in Congress, Fernando Cordero, told El Telegrafo daily this week.
Polls suggest two reforms that critics say could restrict media freedom are the only ones that do not have overwhelming support from voters, but would still be approved.
The controversial proposals aimed at overhauling the “corrupt” and “inefficient” judiciary are very popular.
The wide array of opposition faces includes Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot and Alberto Acosta, a former key advisor to Correa who has turned against the president.
But they lack the charisma of Correa, who has used the rhetorical skills he honed as an university professor to rally the support of the poor as well as the middle classes.
“I don’t see another national leader. I think we’re still going through a one-dimensional stage,” said Santiago Perez, who heads a polling firm that often works for the government.
Correa has become the standard bearer of the poor’s struggle against “the elite,” and he leads Alianza Pais, a well-tuned coalition that has allowed him to win four plebiscites since he first took office four years ago. Most of his political foes are not backed by political parties.
Correa’s efforts to increase state revenue from natural resources are popular among Ecuadoreans, but his antagonistic stance towards the media, the church and the opposition have alienated some middle-class supporters in urban areas.
“Correa’s challenge in the next few months will be to regain (support) from a middle class that has grown disenchanted ... but they are a middle class that right now does not have an alternative,” said Perez.
“Rafael has a fan-base of about 30 percent and they will vote ‘yes’ even if they see footage of him killing a baby,” said brother Fabricio Correa. “About 20 percent are against him ... We’re after the 50 percent that want another alternative.”
Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia; writing by Eduardo Garcia; editing by Anthony Boadle