Is Rafael Correa about to become the next Hugo Chávez?

By Risa Grais-Targow

Votes are still being tallied for Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa's May 7 constitutional referendum (to his own 2008 constitution), which asked voters to weigh in on 10 issues ranging from banning bullfighting and gambling to granting Correa greater control over the media and the judiciary. As this went to press, voters looked likely to approve the bulk of the proposals, though two of the most important were up for grabs. The referendum has caused a few jitters, in part because of the precedent set by Correa's northern neighbor, President Hugo Chávez, who enjoys broad control over Venezuela's media and institutions and convinced voters to abolish term limits in a 2009 referendum. But even if the final count enhances Correa's powers, he won't be the next Chávez.

For one, Correa is likely to get closer rather than more hostile to the United States in the aftermath of the referendum. Bilateral relations have been shaky since April, when Correa declared U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges persona non grata after WikiLeaks released cables suggesting that Correa was aware of corruption in the upper echelons of his police force. The accusation undermined Correa's campaign rhetoric about sprucing up Ecuador's tarnished justice system. In retaliation, U.S. President Barack Obama expelled Ecuador's ambassador, even while the renewal of the decades-old Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) remained outstanding. The trade preferences expired in February, just in time for Ecuador's flower exporters to lose out on the Valentine's Day market. They and other exporters are still clamoring for ATPDEA to be renewed. Once Correa's campaign for more control has subsided, he'll likely heed those calls and sidle up to the United States again in order to hold onto the U.S. market.

Moreover, the referendum is essentially a popularity contest -- and one from which Correa is likely to emerge victorious. He is an appealing candidate and a good campaigner, and he has an approval rating of 57 percent. Winning yet another contest should bolster his confidence further by reinvigorating his mandate -- which, maybe paradoxically, will make him less inclined to behave rashly.

That said, if the unexpectedly close outcome gnaws at Correa, there could be a few bumps in the road ahead. The two items in the referendum that would clinch a Chávez-like power grab for Correa are those pertaining to the media and the judiciary. They are the two he likely cares most about and are also the most closely contested. The proposal regarding the judiciary would allow Correa to essentially handpick judges, concentrating ever more power in the executive and limiting the checks on the president's authority. If the measure is approved, Correa could also wield his dominion over the courts to curb any serious political threats. The question pertaining to the media, meanwhile, would create an oversight body to regulate "discriminatory media" -- as defined by the president. But the close race suggests that Ecuadoreans are less enthusiastic about enabling a strongman than Venezuelans were. That's a good sign, even if Correa wins this round.

Risa Grais-Targow is an associate in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.