'Muerte Cruzada' in President vs Congress battle in Ecuador

Latin American countries have witnessed unfair impeachment of presidents

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

The Ecuadorian Congress, dominated by leftist parties tried to impeach the centre-right President Guillermo Lasso last month on corruption charges. But the amount involved was insignificant and the alleged crime did not warrant impeachment. It was clearly a Congressional coup attempt to remove the president, democratically elected by millions of voters for a four year term from May 2021 to May 2025.

The Congress wanted to get rid of him because they had the power to do so. It was an attempt to undermine the presidential mandate and abuse of power causing unnecessary political instability.

This was the second impeachment attempt of the Congress. They tried one earlier but could not manage the two third majority. But this time they got the numbers. Faced with this congressional threat, President Lasso resorted to "Muerte Cruzada" (mutual death) provision of the constitution and dissolved the Congress on May 17, before they could pass the impeachment resolution. After this, he is obliged to leave the office at the end of six months and new elections are to be held within six months both for the presidency and the congress. The newly-elected Congress and President will stay in office for the remaining period of the original mandate upto 2025 when the next regular elections are due. The elections are likely to be held on August 20.

The popularity ratings of President Lasso, a centre-right businessman is very low, given the ongoing crime wave, economic problems and protests of indigenous communities. He had held a referendum earlier to push through some reforms. But the referendum was defeated and his party lost seats in the local elections. Lasso has announced that he would not stand for reelection.

In recent years, the Ecuadorian Congress had tasted blood by impeaching two presidents. It had impeached President Abadalla Bucaram in 1997 for “mental incapacity” within six months after his assumption of office in August 1996. He was a colourful and loud leftist. But he did not commit any serious crime warranting impeachment. In 2005, the Congress had impeached President Lucio Gutierrez for “abandoning his position”. He had stayed in power for just two years.

Since 1979, when democracy was restored after military dictatorship, five presidents of Ecuador had their terms cut short. In view of this history, President Rafael Correa had got the constitution amended in 2008 with the new provision of 'Muerte Cruzada' to empower the presidency against a hostile congress. President Lasso was the first one to exercise this power.

Some other Latin American countries have also witnessed unfair and unjustifiable impeachment of presidents by rogue congresses.

The Paraguayan Congress impeached the leftist President Fernando Lugo in 2012 on a trivial charge when a few protestors were killed by police during a protest. It was a hurried 24-hour express impeachment. The real reason for the removal of President Lugo was that the rightist oligarchic Colorado party which has been ruling Paraguay continuously for the last seven decades wanted to nip in the bud emerging Leftists seeking social justice with pro-poor policies. Lugo was the first and last leftist president in the last seventy years of one party dictatorship.

Brazilian President Dilma was impeached unjustly because she refused to bail out Eduardo Cunha the president of the Lower House who was caught red-handed with several million dollars of illegal deposits in a Swiss bank account. She thought she had the moral right to let him face the law while the crooked Cunha had exercised his right to gang up his corrupt Congressional colleagues to pass the impeachment resolution. Rouseff was naïve and arrogant and refused to follow the established system of presidential deals with congressional leaders. Cunha was later convicted and jailed for corruption.

Pedro Castillo, the Leftist President of Peru was removed from power in December 2022 by the rightist Congress when he had just completed 18 months of his four year term. The rightwing Congress was gunning for him from day one. Frustrated by the machinations of the Congress, he made an amateurish and feeble attempt to dissolve the Congress. But the Congress was faster and removed him from power before he could dissolve it. He has been imprisoned for his constitutional crime of attempt to dissolve the Congress. Poor Castillo was naive and did not have the skills to deal with the corrupt and crooked law makers. He was played and trapped into a wrong decision and punished. He was a mere victim of the Congressional coup.

Before Castillo, three other Peruvian presidents have been impeached: Billinghurst, Fujimori and Vizcarra. Of course, the authoritarian and abusive Fujimori was the most suitable candidate for impeachment. The Congress had many other unsuccessful impeachment attempts against other presidents.. 

In the presidential system of the Latin American countries, Congress becomes the biggest challenge for presidents who do not have their own party with majority in Congress. With the fragmentation of political parties in the region, very few Presidents have their own parties in majority in the Congress. In such cases, the Congressional members start blackmail and extortion from day one. They threaten impeachment and refuse to pass bills unless they are given back room deals. So most presidents make deals with influential Congress members and let them indulge in corruption. In the notorious Petrobras corruption scandal, it was revealed that all the major political parties and leaders had got their share of the loot, besides the ruling Workers Party of Lula. In fact, President Lula had introduced during his first term “under-the table monthly payment” to Congressional members to get their agreement to pass legislation needed for the country. This was called as the Mensalao scandal. But when this became a public scandal, Lula managed to come out of it with more bribing of the Congress.
The Brazilian Congress should have impeached President Bolsonaro who had committed serious crimes by subverting democracy and causing thousands of deaths by not taking action during the Covid crisis. He mocked and imposed obstacles against vaccination. But the Congress loved him because he gave them a free pass for corruption.

"Muerte Cruzada” could be a solution to other Latin American countries where presidents had become victims of the rogue congresses abusing their power for impeachment. It will deter the impeachment-trigger-happy Congresses from undermining democracy by unjust impeachment of duly elected presidents. It will bring back the balance between president and the congress, prevent political instability and strengthen democracy.

The author is an expert in Latin American affairs

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