President Rafael Correa wants to keep his cool sash. Photographer: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images
President Rafael Correa wants to keep his cool sash. Photographer: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa appears to have joined the club of Latin American populists who have trouble relinquishing power. Correa announced over the weekend that he aims to change the constitution so that he -- and any other Ecuadorian public official -- can run for re-election any number of times.

Correa follows in the footsteps of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose cronies in Congress last year passed similar legislation, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who last year got a pliant Supreme Court to allow him another go at the presidency, and Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez, who sold voters the idea of unlimited presidential terms in a 2009 referendum.

Correa, already in his third term in office, is peddling his proposal as a way to safeguard Ecuador’s institutions. “I believe in the stability of institutions,” he told Congress during his annual address to the nation. "That’s why I’ve decided to support these initiatives.”

It is true that Ecuador lacks strong institutions and a history of political stability. In the 28 years prior to Correa’s election in 2007, the country had 12 presidents, some of whom held office for only a few months.

Moreover, Ecuador’s economy has performed well under Correa and his Alianza Pais party. Growth has averaged 4.2 percent, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Correa has invested a good part of Ecuador’s oil windfall in infrastructure projects. His approval rating reached 75 percent in April, making him the world’s second most popular leader after Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Correa, however, is far from a perfect president. He has made Ecuador far too reliant on Chinese money and on high oil prices. His big-government approach has discouraged private-sector and foreign investment. He pushed through a law to muzzle the media. More dangerously, he retained the power to supersede laws promoting fiscal prudence, allowing him the financial wherewithal to buy off voters.

Scratching term limits in a resource-rich nation like Ecuador is especially dangerous because politicians can buy voter allegiance to perpetuate their mandate, as Chavez did in Venezuela.

Regardless of how well Ecuador has done under his presidency, giving Correa what he wants would hurt its democracy. It would say to Ecuadorians that, despite the semblance of a liberal government, a powerful president can still change the rules for political convenience.

To contact the author of this article: Raul Gallegos at rgallegos5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net.