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Absolute control
3/17/2005
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Gutiérrez consolidates power, while opposition protests fail to change government´s course.

After two years of clinging to his post and surviving an attempt to remove him, President Lucio Gutiérrez has succeeded in assuming political control of the state’s main bodies with a precarious majority in Congress that allowed him to change the correlation of forces in the rest of the democratic institutions.

Gutiérrez last year gained a majority in Congress with 54 —out of 100 legislators—in his favor, which allowed him to change the composition of the Constitutional Tribunal and the Electoral Tribunal, until then controlled by the right-wing Social Christian Party (PCS).

In the first week of December, Gutierrez fired members of the Supreme Court who had been named in 1998. These judges should have resigned in 2004, after having defined a process of democratic election that would guarantee the suitability and independence of those who would replace them. This did not occur, since the judges continued in their jobs and failed to implement a system to substitute the judges who were due to leave their posts.

These events allowed Gutiérrez, in alliance with the new president of Congress, Omar Quintana of the Ecuadoran Roldosista Party (PRE), to justify the restructuring of the Supreme Court and the appointment of new judges, with which the ruling party assumed full control of Ecuador’s democratic institutions.

Opposition tests its strength

The opposition —especially the PCS— reacted by calling for a general revolt, which resulted in two mass marches.

The first took place on Jan. 26, in Guayaquil, where 200,000 people, according to opposition sources, participated in a demonstration called by the Social Christian mayor Jaime Nebot. Although Nebot initially mentioned the state’s failure to protect the city against crime, the protest ended with a clear allusion to autonomy for Ecuador’s main port. The government reacted by calling a counter protest, organized by the PRE, to give a show of support to Gutiérrez’s administration.

The show of force by the PCS not only sought to send a message to the government but also to the political parties that hope to win the 2006 elections, such as the Democratic Left (ID). The party also decided to test its own strength and Quito mayor Paco Moncayo called a march for Feb. 17.

In contrast with the Guayaquil protest in which the PSC’s leadership was the dominant force, the march in Quito —also estimated in 200,000 people— was a mix of political tendencies, manufacturing chambers, social movements, neighborhood groups, non-governmental organizations and even a sector of the indigenous movement.

"The people came out to show their discontent; it was a very democratic exercise, but this force could not be channeled effectively due to the absence of a concrete goal," said Romel Jurado, analyst and teacher at Simon Bolivar Andean University.

Quito also featured a pro-Gutiérrez counter protest which brought out around the same number of people. Nevertheless, the two opposition marches have not had an impact on the government’s actions. On the contrary, Gutiérrez questioned the intentions of his opponents.

"Let them march first to pay their debts," said the president, implying that the leaders of the marches were responsible for the 1999 banking crisis which led to the collapse of 10 banks.

Likewise, the president highlighted the alliances between groups that not long ago were enemies, alluding to the PCS, the social democratic ID and the leftist Pachacutik Pluricultural Movement.

"Those who yesterday were enemies now unite to defend their posts, to continue robbing the people," Gutiérrez said.

Fighting without listening

According to Jorge Zalles, specialist in conflict resolution and professor at San Francisco de Quito University, "they are fighting without listening to each other; they are trying to show who can make the most noise without making any proposals."

This situation is forcing the opposition to look for new alternatives to pressure the government. The former president of Congress, Guillermo Landázuri, of ID, has threatened to create a parallel congress to the one presided by Quintana, saying it will be installed with 47 deputies.

"This is a fight of two groups in power with similar interests. They do not care about the needs of the people. What matters is who has the power and how they can use it to benefit their economic interests," said Xavier Alvarado, leader of the Federation of Popular Neighborhoods of Northwest Quito.

In midst of this scene of political confrontation, there have been outbreaks of violence, intimidation of social leaders and journalists, break-ins at headquarters of political organizations and non-governmental organizations and threats of repressive laws in Congress —such as the so-called Ley Mordaza (Gag Law), which would limit the freedom of the media.

"This scenario of legal insecurity will generate increased violence," said José Vicente Eguiguren, secretary general of the Ecuadoran Episcopal Conference when he made public a Catholic Church statement rejecting the actions of intimidation on Feb. 24.

"Power, in any of its forms, can never be used as a tool of unjust intimidation through a de facto use (of power) or through a manipulated legality," added Eguiguren, who at the same time called on Gutiérrez to "follow the road of transparency, constitutionality and social peace."?


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