Cablegate: Atty Gen'l Debate Unleashes Wild Ride in Congress
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 QUITO 000664
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL EC
SUBJECT: ATTY GEN'L DEBATE UNLEASHES WILD RIDE IN CONGRESS
REF: QUITO 650
1. SUMMARY: March 22 witnessed political mischief-making
that far exceeded the (already high) Ecuadorian norm, with
the battle for control of the Attorney General's office
joining the conflict over the Supreme Court as principal
catalysts. President Gutierrez and his PRE allies, cognizant
that a majority of Congressional deputies (including those of
erstwhile partner PRIAN) oppose the leading AG candidate,
have sought to delay a legislative vote, thus allowing him to
take office March 30 sans Congressional approval. A tactic
favored recently, closing the legislature session due to lack
of quorum, backfired mightily the morning of March 22.
Minutes after Congressional President Omar Quintana issued
the closure order, pro- and anti-GoE forces clashed outside
the plenary, the first in a day of confrontations. Later
that evening, Gutierrez employed another thinly-disguised
delaying tactic, declaring March 23 and 24 national holidays
(during which Congress could not meet). He rescinded the
order just hours later, however. A presidential insider
contacted March 23 admitted the Congressional melee had
spooked the administration. Gutierrez, he claimed, must take
bold steps if he wished to forestall even bolder opposition
attempts to remove him. END SUMMARY.
Court Solution Imminent?
2. Political temperatures actually had dropped the last
seven days, partly a product of UN envoy Leandro Despouy's
fact-finding mission to Ecuador (Reftel). Gutierrez had
called for a March 23 dialog, inviting administration allies,
opposition, media, and civil society to participate. To an
audience commemorating the foundation of Ecuador's Supreme
Electoral Tribunal, he evinced further flexibility on his
referendum, aimed at giving Ecuador a truly independent and
functional judiciary. Many Embassy contacts canvassed
believed a Court compromise around the corner.
3, The blow-up surrounding the Attorney General election may
have torpedoed nascent dialog, however. Under Ecuador's 1998
constitution, responsibility for naming the AG falls to
Congress, which chooses a candidate from a three-person slate
(terna) prepared by the National Judicial Council (CNJ). If
Congress fails to select a winner in the 30 days following
the CNJ's list presentation, the candidate topping the terna
takes office automatically. The CNJ, many of whose members
had been selected by the controversial Supreme Court, had
proposed three jurists all linked to Gutierrez or his allies.
The opposition lambasted the lineup, even claiming
unconstitutionality, since the CNJ presented its candidates
two days before prescribed by law.
4. In recent days, opposition parties, led by the PSC, ID,
and Pachakutik, claimed they had marshaled sufficient (51)
votes in Congress to reject the entire terna (although the
Constitution does not mention such an act). In response, the
GoE has sought to delay, or even forestall, a Congressional
vote. Pro-government deputies boycotted sessions, for
example, making quorum difficult to reach. Ally Quintana had
even prohibited special Congressional sessions, although he
couched his decision as a cost-savings measure.
Leader's Tactics Infuriate Opponents
5. Congressional opposition frustration over Quintana's
leadership peaked March 22 when, only minutes after deputies
assembled, the legislative leader declared no quorum.
Earlier, PRIAN leader Alvaro Noboa had announced his bloc
would join the PSC, ID, and Pachakutik in rejection of the AG
terna, arguing the CNJ should propose new, less politicized
candidates. (Noboa's about-face reportedly is due to GoE
authorities' efforts collect back taxes. PRIAN leaders claim
not to have abandoned Gutierrez completely, however, and will
continue to support him on other matters). The PRIAN's nine
votes meant the opposition held nearly 60, more than enough
to reject the slate. "Down with the 'coup-ism,' open the
session," the legislators screamed, calling on Congressional
VP Jorge Montero to assume command.
6. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing outside the plenary.
Judicial workers, striking to demand the current Supreme
Court's dissolution, had assembled to present Congress a
solution to the crisis. Alongside, the pro-Court entity
"Zero Corruption" had organized a counter-protest. Tempers
flared once Quintana shuttered the session, and the groups
clashed. Media report the workers' leader, Luis Munoz,
suffered a puncture wound that required emergency abdominal
7. Hours later the situation worsened. Judicial workers,
joined by superior court judges and ID deputies, rushed the
legislative president's offices, claiming they would remain
until Congress re-installed to resolve the Court and AG
crises. Media reported that pro-government forces pelted
them with coins and soaked them with water. Sporadic verbal
and physical confrontations continued throughout the day both
inside and outside Congress, eventually forcing police to
launch tear gas canisters to disperse the crowds.
8. It got even stranger. In early evening, President
Gutierrez issued a presidential decree making March 23 and 24
national holidays. Before skeptical media, Press Secretary
Ivan Ona claimed the time off would benefit the tourist trade
and (somehow) spur economic activity. Opposition leaders
cried foul, calling the decision another maneuver to prevent
an AG vote. Bowing to pressures from municipal leaders and
the business community, the president rescinded the order
three hours later (forcing the Embassy to activate its phone
tree a second time, telling staff to report for work as
normal March 23).
Insider Acknowledges Serious Problems
9. "Chaos in Congress" topped newscasts and front pages
March 23. To gauge the GoE's reaction and again press for
constructive dialog, the DCM telephoned Presidential
Secretary and close Embassy contact Carlos Polit. The
previous night's brouhaha clearly troubled the presidential
insider. Winning a lion's share of Polit's ire was Alvaro
Noboa, whose anti-Gutierrez diatribe over the AG terna had
emboldened the opposition to take more extremist positions.
In contrast, at breakfast a bloc of ID deputies had
approached Polit and proclaimed their desires for a
negotiated solution to the judicial impasse. Polit therefore
believed the time right for Gutierrez to make a bold gesture
toward to opposition. He offered no details, however.
Septel will report Polit actions on the Oxy dispute.
Congress March 23: Back to "Normal"
10. The legislature reconvened March 23, with 55 deputies
present (to ensure quorum, a number of opposition congressmen
remained in the plenary room overnight, reportedly in
complete darkness). Political posturing reached
near-farsical levels, with deputies cloaked in makeshift
masks to fight the effects of yesterday's tear-gassing. As
is customary of late, there has been much debate, but no
movement on substance.
11. Having seen so many "crises" during the president's
26-month tenure, we're hesitant to say the Attorney General
crisis, any more than the Court conflict, represents the
beginning of Gutierrez's end. Yet a full defection by
Noboa's PRIAN would convert the opposition minority to
majority status. And as we've seen in recent months, with 51
votes in Congress, you can do almost anything. END COMMENT.