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Cablegate: Congress Debates Referendum Questions

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 002223

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PGOV EC
SUBJECT: CONGRESS DEBATES REFERENDUM QUESTIONS

REF: QUITO 1976

1. (SBU) Summary: Minister of Government Oswaldo Molestina
sent an initial draft of referendum questions to Congress on
September 27. Congress are currently wading through the text
of 17 proposed questions designed to probe citizens' opinions
on everything from limiting campaign advertisements to
confirming a new Supreme Court. Issues that legislators deem
matters of "national urgency" will go forward to a vote; the
Palacio government hopes that vote can take place by December
11.

2. (SBU) Approval of high court members represents the most
critical question on the ballot, since it risks invalidating
the process to fill the void in the court that has existed
since April. Some fear that voters disenchanted with the
administration could torpedo that progress, leaving the
judiciary no farther ahead than it was when former President
Gutierrez disbanded the court. OAS observers warn that a
poorly phrased question in the current draft could create a
new vacuum if the people vote "no." End Summary.

3. (SBU) The referendum proposal grew out of the irregular
circumstances that brought President Palacio to power. Quito
street protests initially focused on ex-president Lucio
Gutierrez' ouster were later interpreted as calls for
systemic change. Palacio assigned his Vice President to lead
a process to collect suggestions for reform from the public,
with constitutional changes to be decided by referendum (see
RefTel).

-----------------------
The Questions Please...
-----------------------

6. (U) Highlights of the 17 questions are as follows:

Congress:

-- Congress will be in full session only three months a year
with its seven commissions working during recess months.

-- A Senate of national representatives would be created to
augment the existing Congress of provincial representatives,
thereby creating a bicameral legislature. (Note: The
administration's intention is for the new bicameral congress
to remain at 100 members, resulting in two small chambers.)

Elections:

-- National and local elections would be by defined
electoral districts, not party lists.

-- Media time available for campaign advertisements would be
controlled and divided equally among political parties.

-- Primary elections would be required for candidates for
president, vice president, mayor and provincial governor,
with parties offering at least two candidates to primary
voters.

Courts:

-- Supreme Court: Option 1: Approve the current process
underway to select and appoint Supreme Court judges. Option
2: If the judges have not yet been selected, authorize the
President to convene an assembly to designated judges within
30 days.

-- A non-partisan Court for Electoral Justice would be
created to consider violations of election law and monitor
campaign funding.

-- Electoral Court judges would need the same qualifications
as supreme court judges.

-- Constitutional Court judges would also need the same
qualification requirements as Supreme Court judges.

Political Parties:

-- Political parties would be required to have a platform, a
political action plan and support from more than 5% of the
public nationwide. Parties falling below 5% support would be
required to disband or join with others to meet the
requirement.

-- Political parties should hold party elections every two
years overseen by the Tribunal Supremo Electoral.

Reform:

-- Constitutional reforms may go into effect three months
after their first debate within Congress and after an 3/5
approval vote in the second debate.

-- Congress has 30 days to consider the urgency of any
constitutional reform proposals (versus the current one year
for reforms not qualified as of national urgency).

-- Reforms enacted as a result of the referendum vote cannot
be modified for at least eight years.

Impeachment and Other Authority Issues:

-- Permit the popular recall by voters of the president,
vice president and other elected officials after they have
completed half of their terms.

-- The President has authority to appoint the Minister of
Government to serve as chief of the cabinet.

-- Guarantee the right to autonomy and self governance of
provinces and regions.

--------------
Double the Fun
--------------

4. (U) Molestina has asked lawmakers to approve the
referendum questions by October 7 to accommodate voting on
December 11. President Palacio has warned Congress to act
quickly on the referendum, saying he would not hestitate to
take "a constitutional decision" if lawmakers do not act
quickly. Congressional action is desired by the executive by
October 7 because the Supreme Electoral Tribunal requires 60
days to prepare for the referendum, which would require
obligatory voting under Ecuadorian law.

5. (U) Congress is under no legal time constraint to act,
however, and some Congress members are already casting doubt
on that schedule, saying that February is a more realistic
timeframe for the plebiscite. Molestina has invited Congress
to offer alternatives to the Government's questions, allowing
voters to decide between them. That could conceivably double
the number of proposals on the ballot.

6. (SBU) It is much more likely that the list of questions
will be substantially reduced after public debate. Molestina
told the Ambassador on September 26 that his initial draft
reform proposals would be exhaustive, in the expectation that
the list of questions will be reduced after dialogue with
party leaders. Some members of Congress have commented that
there are too many questions and that they are hard to
understand. Others have criticized Molestina's proposals for
overlooking suggestions collected from the public; instead
selectively reflecting the administration's own reform
agenda. Molestina has defended the draft list as reflecting
the interests of the people.

-------
Comment
-------

7. (SBU) Palacio's appointment of Molestina, a popular
member of the Democratic Left party, has improved prospects
for negotiations with Congress. Given time constraints
involved in holding a December referendum, and the difficulty
entailed in implementing electoral reforms before the 2006
national elections, it is likely that those negotiations will
progressively trim the list of questions to a core of four or
five proposals, including ratification of the new Supreme
Court.

8. (SBU) With a record of two previous referendum attempts
(under previous presidents) failing after being converted
into anti-government plebescites, the risks inherent in
putting the Supreme Court issue to the people merit special
attention. OAS judicial expert and Chilean Senator Carlos
Viera warned OAS diplomats on September 28 that the Supreme
Court question should be changed. The new Supreme Court is
likely to be constituted by mid-November, he said, prior to
any referendum. If voters reject that court, a new vacuum
would be created, since option two is available only in the
event a court has not been selected. We will support OAS
efforts to correct this deficiency, and consider other ways
to prevent the new court from being undermined.
JEWELL

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