The extraordinary flurry of claims to the presidency of this small Andean nation came to a peaceful, equally extraordinary solution on Sunday, as an agreement was reached for the vice president to serve as interim president. This makes Rosalia Arteaga Ecuador’s first female president.
Under the agreement hammered out with congressional leaders, Arteaga will serve while Congress amends the Constitution to give it a clear mechanism to elect a successor.
Arteaga’s selection as president is a rarity in Latin America, which has seen only two female presidents before her - Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua and Isabel Peron in Argentina.
Arteaga, 40, had maintained that she was the rightful successor to Abdala Bucaram, who was voted out of office by Congress on Thursday on the ground of mental incapacity. Congress had elected its own president, Fabian Alarcon, to lead the country, but Arteaga contended Congress had no right to take that step.
With Congress scheduled to begin work on revising the Constitution this week to allow it to select a successor in such cases, Arteaga could serve as president for just a few days.
But the agreement for a peaceful transition based in law followed a night rife with forebodings of disaster and of non-stop meetings.
Bucaram, in an incoherent, frenzied speech at a rally on Saturday night, had called on his supporters to take to the streets. Governors who supported him announced the secession of their provinces, including the strategic Esmeraldas and El Oro provinces on the borders with Colombia and Peru, a nation with which Ecuador went to war in 1995.
Hours later, however, Bucaram acknowledged that he lacked a mandate to govern, particularly after the military said Saturday night it no longer recognized him as president.
Alarcon, the president of Congress, begrudgingly said he would temporarily renounce his claim to the presidency, with the understanding that he would re-emerge as the congressionally elected interim president once the Constitution has been amended. New elections would then be held early next year.
By morning, the tension had dissipated, as if it had been little more than an excess from the opening night on Saturday of Carnival, the half-sacred, half-profane festival that precedes Lent.
Crucial questions remained, like the duration of Arteaga’s tenure, whether she would ultimately abide by her agreement, whether Congress in fact has the votes to amend the Constitution and whether Alarcon would be the one to replace Arteaga. But after all the protests, antics and intrigues of the last 48 hours, it appeared that Ecuadoreans had somehow landed upright.
The country had walked away from violence, and though skirmishes might lie ahead, it appeared that through dialogue, the country had forced the Congress to go back and pass changes to the Constitution that would allow it to act under the rule of law, rather than what critics contend was thinly veiled political chicanery. The military, despite pressure from various sectors to declare a winner in the three-way split for control, came out publicly insisting on a solution that had a firm basis in law.
“The country has found a constitutional solution that will allow us to rebuild dialogue, repair and hope for a new country,” Arteaga said on Sunday in her first address as the undisputed Interim president from Carondelet, the Presidential Palace. When she first teamed up as Bucaram’s running mate, Arteaga was a responsible counterweight to his volatile personality. But once elected, Bucaram and his supporters apparently saw little role for her.
“They essentially said, get back in the kitchen where you belong,” a diplomat here said.