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Ecuador's Correa tightens grip on power through referendum plan

QUITO, Ecuador, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa is planning to tighten his grip on political power after a series of maneuvers that helped bring about a draft referendum combining populist measures with strategies for a more active role in both the executive and judiciary.

Correa received vital support from the country's constitutional court over the draft of a referendum that combines questions on issues such as bullfighting and gambling and a tougher response to organized crime and social disorder.

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The U.S.-trained economist has responded to Ecuador's fluid politics by introducing a series of populist policies, some fueled by the country's rising income from crude oil exports. Chronic poverty still holds back more than one-third of Ecuador's 14.7 million citizens from participating in national development programs.

Correa's supporters argue the president needs a firmer grip on power to carry out reforms crucial to economic regeneration. Correa came to power in a runoff election in 2006 but faced economic and political problems even before the 2009 economic downturn hit Latin America.

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On Sept. 30, 2010, Correa was taken hostage in a hospital by police officers during a series of protests against cuts to the benefits of public service workers that Correa introduced as part of a financial austerity package. The government dubbed the action an attempted coup.

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The planned referendum, seen partly as an answer to the events of September, will give the president and his party greater interventionist hold on the judiciary, a prospect that already enjoys a 57 percent approval rating in an opinion survey.

A controversial plan contested by the opposition would have the judiciary falling under the overseeing power of a commission that will have representatives from the national assembly as well as the executive and a transparency body that critics say is answerable to the president.

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Opposition critics said about half of the questions set for the referendum amounted to amendments to the constitution.

Chief Justice Patricio Pazmino said the proposals had won support from the constitutional court. In the next stage, the referendum plan would be put before Ecuador's electoral council for a decision, including a date.

In the opinion survey, Correa won widespread support for a proposal to amend a preventative detention law that requires detainees to be released after one year if there hasn't been a trial. The government argues the law as it exists is open to abuse and encourages corruption but civil liberties campaigners insist it is already draconian and unfair to the detainees.

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Other measures proposed by Correa would empower the government to get tougher on the media and prevent media and financial companies from acquiring stakes in other sectors of the economy.

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Some of the key fault lines on Ecuador's political landscape are the rising dissatisfaction among both the elite, mainly of European origin, and the indigenous population, which blames a succession of governments for reneging on promises of political and social reforms.

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