QUITO, Ecuador – President Rafael Correa declared victory after an exit poll indicated voters approved all 10 ballot questions in a referendum Saturday, an outcome critics say will tighten his grip on power, inhibit press freedom and lessen the judiciary’s independence.
The exit poll by SP Investigacion y Estudios, which regularly does work for the government, said voters approved all the questions by greater than 60 percent. First official results were expected Saturday night. Three hours after polls closed less than 1 percent of the vote had been counted.
The chief of an Organization of American States observer team, Enrique Correa of Chile, said the voting appeared to go smoothly and there was no evidence of fraud.
The plebiscite was an important gauge of a leftist U.S.-trained economist who has brought remarkable stability to a small, traditionally volatile and corrupt South American nation.
Correa noted in a TV interview that it was the eighth straight electoral victory “of this dream that is called citizen’s revolution.” The first was his 2006 election, and he was easily re-elected in 2009 after a rewrite of the constitution, following a playbook written by his ally, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
“The Ecuadorean people have triumphed. Democracy has triumphed” with the referendum, said Correa, who is eligible for re-election in two years.
Some questions were straightforward, such as whether to ban bullfighting and gambling. Others were complex. Two of the most controversial would bar owners of news media from having other commercial interests and create a government media oversight panel.
Correa called approval of the media ownership question “a historic deed.”
“We are going to diffuse the power in this country,” he said.
Critics say power is actually being consolidated in favor of Correa, who is often at loggerheads with the largely opposition news media and business community.
Former President Lucio Gutierrez, a fierce Correa opponent, said that with the referendum Correa “seeks to take justice by force and dominate the news media.”
Correa proposed the referendum in January, three months after surviving a seemingly spontaneous violent police revolt over benefit cuts that he called a coup attempt.
Much like Chavez, he has faced a largely hostile press. He has since February filed defamation charges against five journalists, seeking million-dollar fines and jail terms for some.
One key ballot question Saturday called for dissolving Ecuador’s judicial oversight council and replacing it with a temporary body given the task of reworking the system. Another would allow authorities to detain suspected criminals longer without filing charges.
Correa’s populist programs, such as $35 monthly payments to nearly 2 million poor families, construction of low-income housing and a commitment to universal free education, have boosted his popularity in this small Andean nation of 14.3 million people.
Former President Osvaldo Hurtado, whose Christian Democrats like all Ecuador’s traditional political parties have all but disappeared, said Correa has conjured “a perfect dictatorship” by manipulating democratic institutions.
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