The National Assembly of Ecuador began its second and final debate on a package of constitutional amendments Thursday amid a small protest outside the building by opposition-aligned demonstrators.
However, opposition lawmakers have deserted the National Assembly building, according to tweets by local newspaper Telegrafo, while opposition protesters have begun to resort to violence by attacking police with sticks.
“Protesters attacking police with spears.”
“Opposition lawmakers desert. Return to hotel Tambo Real.”
President Rafael Correa said from France, where he is being awarded his 11th honorary doctor’s degree as well as taking place in the COP21 conference, that this is is a crucial day for Ecuador. He refuted the opposition's claims the reforms to 15 of the 444 articles of the Constitution under discussion constitute state reforms and said they in fact enhance citizens’ rights.
“So much opposition for amendments that only increase rights, make us more efficient and in no way imply state reform — as people have falsely said — is ridiculous,” he tweeted Thursday.
He specified that part of the need for reform is to stop a return of what he calls the “viejo pais,” or “old guard” — the elite group of politicians who used to rule Ecuador for their own interests instead of those of the people: “The struggle is to avoid a return of the old guard who want to stop us ruling,” he tweeted.
Correa criticized the opposition for attempting to “usurp popular representation with the complicity of certain media outlets and through the health strike,” among other destabilization attempts.
The amendments were presented before a gathering of the National Assembly following a year-long promotion and distribution of their contents throughout the country.
The amendments touch on a wide-variety of subjects, including declaring communication mediums a public service, changes to regulations governing public sector workers — including the extension of the right to unionize — and a reduction in the age requirement for the office of president, dropping from 35 to 30.
The most controversial amendment is a proposal to eliminate term limits for political office. Presently the constitution only allows politicians to hold office for two terms. The amendment will still proceed, though it will include a provisional measure that will make it so the change only takes place after May 24, 2017.
That transitional provision was proposed by President Rafael Correa in an effort to silence critics who accused the president of seeking to extend his time in power. The small modification effectively prevents the incumbent Correa from being able to immediately seek a third term.
Politicians and organizations opposed to the policies of the Correa government have attempted to use the debate surrounding the amendments for political gain.
However, opposition protests last week had a modest turnout. Ahead of that protest, organizers made provocative comments, suggesting they would “encircle” the National Assembly building in order to prevent lawmakers from entering and conducting their work.
Due to this threat, members of the ruling PAIS Alliance party and the Coordinator of Social Movements have held a permanent vigil outside the offices of the National Assembly since Tuesday to ensure the work of the assembly would not be impeded. A separate vigil is also being held in front of the Carondelet Palace, the seat of the presidency, in the historic center of Quito.
The political coalition known as the United Front, comprised of the coalition comprised of 14 political organizations that back the government, also affirmed its support for the amendments.
The Constitution in Context
Ecuador's current constitution, adopted through a referendum in 2008, was first proposed by President Correa shortly after arriving to power as a means of ridding the country of its storied political past that the country face instability, regular crises, and saw several presidents removed through popular protest.
Article 441 of the 2008 Ecuadorean constitution specifies that certain amendments can be considered by the National Assembly directly, without the need for a referendum.
Ecuador's Constitutional Court affirmed in October 2014 that the package of proposed changes could be dealt by the National Assembly, as they do not infringe on the rights of citizens.
Amendments require two-thirds support to pass, in this case 92 votes. The ruling PAIS Alliance party currently holds 99 seats after winning massive support during the past election, meaning the passage of the amendments is virtually guaranteed.
The official report prepared by the specially designated commission of the National Assembly is over 150 pages long and will be read in its entirety before debate on its contents will begin.
However, depending on the length of the debate, the vote may ultimately be pushed into Friday.
WATCH: Ecuador to Debate Constitutional Amendments