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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ecuador’s president dissolves congress amid impeachment trial

President Guillermo Lasso of Ecuador meets with President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington on Dec. 19, 2022.

By Julie Turkewitz and Genevieve Glatsky

President Guillermo Lasso of Ecuador disbanded the country’s opposition-led National Assembly on Wednesday, a drastic move as the right-leaning leader faced impeachment proceedings over accusations of embezzlement.

The constitutional measure, never before used, allows the president to rule by decree until new elections can be held, marking a moment of extraordinary political turbulence for a country of 18 million already in turmoil.

Ecuador has long been a relatively safe haven in the region, but in recent years it has seen rising violence and a skyrocketing homicide rate as increasingly powerful narco-trafficking groups fight for territory.

Opposition lawmakers accused Lasso of turning a blind eye to irregularities and embezzlement in a contract between a state-run shipping company and an oil tanker company that wasn’t delivering on its promises — allegations first made in media reports. The country’s constitutional court later approved a charge of embezzlement against the president but denied two charges of bribery.

Last week, the National Assembly voted to commence impeachment hearings, but all proceedings were brought to a permanent halt once Lasso dissolved congress.

The president repeatedly denied the charges, pointing out that the contract was signed before he took office.

“The prosecutors of this trial have acknowledged that they have nothing,” Lasso said Tuesday in his impeachment testimony. “This inquiry is political.”

He added: “This is not about saving a presidency, but about preserving a functioning democracy.”

This is the second time the opposition has tried to remove Lasso from the presidency since he took office in 2021.

He has faced growing criticism and petitions for his removal from civil society groups in the face of soaring rates of crime, extortion, kidnappings and robberies. Gangs battle for control of drug routes and have gained greater control over the country’s prisons, leading to several prison riots and massacres over the last three years.

For weeks, the president and congress were locked in a game of brinkmanship, with legislators threatening to impeach and remove Lasso as he threatened to dissolve congress and call new elections — a move known in Ecuador as muerte cruzada, or mutually assured death.

The mechanism was written into the constitution in 2008 as a tool to end deadlocks between the presidency and the legislature. But until now no president has ever enacted it.

Now, with plummeting approval ratings, in some cases below 20%, Lasso must call for new presidential and legislative elections and will govern by decree in the meantime. The newly elected president and National Assembly would then govern for two years, until the end of the original term in 2025.

The disbanding of congress provides temporary stability for the country, said Arianna Tanca, an Ecuadorean political scientist, allowing Lasso to pass laws without a deadlock and giving political parties the chance for a “reset.”

But it also threatens to undercut the country’s democracy. A head of government calling for new elections is common in parliamentary democracies, but has no parallel in other presidential democracies in Latin America, said Mauricio Alarcón Salvador, the director of Transparency International’s chapter in Ecuador.

“To see a president shut down the assembly and assume legislative power in a transitory manner is undoubtedly a blow to democracy,” he said. “And above all to the system of checks and balances that should be in force in any democracy in the world.”

Lasso’s decision comes amid upheaval in the region. In December, Peru’s president attempted to dissolve congress — in this case an illegal move that led to his removal and arrest, and then to widespread protests that left dozens of people dead.

In January, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil stormed government buildings in the capital, arguing that November’s election in which he was defeated had been rigged.

Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Lasso’s decision to go around legislators could possibly be good for him.

“Even though he is very unpopular now, I could see six months of rule by decree actually boosting his popularity if he can do something quickly about the twin crises of crime and hunger and poverty,” he said. “Although, given his track record, that’s a big if.”

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