'Muerte cruzada' in Ecuador as president dissolves National Assembly

What brought the worst outcome for Peru president may be the best of options in Quito

Ecuador President Guillermo Lasso makes an announcement regarding the dissolution of Ecuador's Congress and a new round of elections, in Quito | Reuters Ecuador President Guillermo Lasso makes an announcement regarding the dissolution of Ecuador's Congress and a new round of elections, in Quito | Reuters

As leftist legislators controlling Ecuador's National Assembly lay a foundation of charges against President Guillermo Lasso and then began to build a case for his removal from office, the center-right Lasso detonated Ecuador's governmental structure as an architect may demolish a building in order to rebuild on its footprint.

Lasso dissolved the legislature and cut short his own term until early elections in 90 days. It was a version of political mutual assured destruction enacted in order to avoid his ouster from office.

In doing so, Lasso took a step reminiscent of what Peru's President Pedro Castillo did earlier this year before being quickly deposed and arrested within hours. But in politics, as in life, style is everything.

In contrast to a quivering Castillo reading the dissolution of Peru's Congress as his hands' trembling was magnified by the shaking of the papers he held, Lasso forcefully and flanked by stone-faced members of his government activated a constitutional provision to dissolve the Congress and asked the National Electoral Council to call for new parliamentary and presidential elections.

The dynamics of power and decision-making are inherently intertwined with the style and manner in which political moves are executed, ultimately impacting their outcomes. But substance and context matter as well.

In Peru, the left-wing Castillo was being impeached on charges of permanent moral incapacity over various actions during his young government, and the attempt to dissolve the Congress resulted in immediate mass resignations of his cabinet and the courts declared the move unconstitutional.

In Ecuador, its National Assembly had been holding a risky political trial, an impeachment procedure of sorts, seeking to remove Lasso from office. 

Lasso's risky countermove, however, had been judged constitutional in a unanimous decision by Ecuador's Constitutional Court, rejecting petitions for the contrary. The country's chief of the high military command, Brig. General Nelson Bolívar Proaño Rodríguez vowed the military will "act firmly" and guarantee security and "peaceful" new elections.

Until then, Lasso will govern by decree.

It was a bold and risky move by the National Assembly that backfired. The rhetoric at the trial was at once soaring and cutting, threatening Lasso's ouster on arguable charges of failing to cancel a contract enacted by the previous government.

Muerte cruzada, which translates to "cross-death", refers to a political mechanism built into Ecuador's Constitution that allows the president to cut short legislators' terms and his own until new elections in six months in cases of "ingovernability".

It is not a draw, however; the advantage goes to the president who remains in office and has enhanced decree powers until the election. The net result is significant, as the president effectively removes the legislative check, concentrating the power on him to govern without opposition.

Former president Rafael Correa, one of the central figures of Latin America's first Pink Tide, now exiled in Belgium and sentenced in Ecuador to 8 years of prison for corruption, begrudgingly accepted that the move might be "the best for the country", while at the same time decrying its constitutionality.

"Unfortunately, that is not correct," said Correa to CNN. "The decree is unconstitutional. Therein we see the dilemma between doing what is right or doing the correct, which is to respect the Constitution."

Ecuadorian Constitutional Attorney Jose Antonio Chiriboga Hungría, speaking from Guayaquil, told THE WEEK that despite the ability to dissolve the Assembly being a constitutional power granted to the president, it was a desperate measure. 

"It was clear that he did not have enough votes to avoid censure and removal from office as president," said Chiriboga Hungría. "The reasons invoked from Article 148 of the Constitution do not align with the current political situation," he said, adding that he believes the action is unconstitutional and constitutes an abuse of power.

From his office in Quito, indigenous legislator Jose Agualsaca Guaman, a former head of the powerful Ecuadorian Federation of Indigenous Peoples and a left-wing leader, shared with THE WEEK his position papers on the situation.

"In no part of the constitutional order and juridic is established that the president can suspend or to void a process and worse (sic) to destitute its natural political judges within a political trial framed and endorsed by the Constitutional Court," says Agualsaca.

"Therefore, the dissolution of the Assembly in the form and opportunity that exists, is an unconstitutional, dictatorial act supported by the chiefs of the armed forces, the police, fictitious and transnational powers."

Constitutional Attorney Andre Benavides disagrees. Tweeting from Quito, he said that the presidential decree "was not subject to subsequent ex officio constitutional review, and the actions seeking unconstitutionality were forced."

The leadership of the indigenous federation had promised to protest if Lasso invoked the 'muerte cruzada' clause, but once it happened they have reacted with restraint and seem poised to make their case in the elections, calling for assemblies rather than protests.

The country was in convulsions, says empresario Marcelo Riera, CEO of Ricor Hats, a Guayaquil-based manufacturing and exporting firm. "This is the best outcome. It is the best of the best of what could happen, muerte cruzada."

The president was always looking for what is best for him, says Riera. "Looking out for his own best outcome and for his interest group, but that did not reach the rest of Ecuador, not at all. It is for the best."

“It is time to change, to change the country, and it is going to show,” said Riera, adding that he believes that there was an abuse of power by Lasso that triggered the legislature-led crisis in the first place.

In Ecuador, the president can govern by decree for a limited period of time. According to the country's Constitution, if the president dissolves the National Assembly and calls for new elections, they can assume temporary legislative powers for upto three months. During this period, the president can issue decrees and make decisions without the need for legislative approval.

This period of governing by decree is meant to be temporary and is primarily intended to maintain basic governance functions until the new elections take place. Once the new elections are held and a new National Assembly is formed, the president's temporary legislative powers expire, and the government can return to normal function.

"Lasso is an unpopular President," says Chiriboga Hungría, analyzing the political situation in the country. "Only his officials, the armed forces, the police, and the Ecuadorian bourgeoisie support him. Over 85 per cent of Ecuadorians disapprove of his government due to its indifference and incompetence."

That is why there is not much political polarization in that regard, he said, explaining why even some in the opposition support Lasso's decision to call for new elections.

In Peru, most people quickly rejected Castillo’s attempt to dissolve the Congress and celebrated his impeachment and arrest as a vindication for democracy. The country also experienced deadly confrontations between protesters and security forces.

Hungría says that in Ecuador, people see in this the best for the country. "People were hopeless and living in uncertainty. Hundreds of Ecuadorians are migrating abroad, sometimes risking their lives, because they believe there is no future in Ecuador. Now, they are waiting to see what will happen with the new elections scheduled for August this year."

Lasso was facing accusations of embezzlement in connection with a highly controversial oil transportation contract that was signed prior to his assumption of office. Opposition lawmakers alleged that in his capacity as president, he failed to intervene in the questionable agreement between state-owned Flota Petrolera Ecuatoriana and Amazonas Tankers, insinuating his involvement in the arrangement that resulted in significant financial losses. 

On May Day, there were numerous marches demanding Lasso's removal from office for what they said was his "lack of suitability for such a high office”.

For Lasso, dissolving the National Assembly appears to have put an end to the governance impasse, and Ecuador seems headed to new legislative and presidential elections with broad support. 

For its southern neighbor, however, it is a different tale. Castillo’s move was rejected by the constitutional court, the armed forces, his vice-president and most of his cabinet. He was impeached and arrested for rebellion and is serving an 18-month prison term while the country remains in turmoil.

Sensing a change in the political winds, Ecuador's former president Correa, himself sentenced on charges of corruption, is happy to take the early elections but said, "We have early elections because a corrupt and inept president did not want to face the constitutional political judgement."

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