QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — President Guillermo Lasso escalated Ecuador’s political crisis Wednesday by dissolving the National Assembly just as it was forging ahead with impeachment proceedings to remove him from office on embezzlement allegations.
In disbanding the assembly, Lasso made first use of the Ecuador presidency’s nuclear option under the constitution in conflicts with the legislative branch, turning his country into the latest in Latin America where rival constitutional powers come to a head.
The conservative president, who has denied wrongdoing, can now govern for up to six months by decree under the oversight of Ecuador’s top court. While Lasso appeared to have the support of the country’s armed forces, his move swiftly drew pushback from critics who said his ouster had been imminent.
In a televised message, Lasso accused the National Assembly of focusing “on destabilizing the government.” He called his move “democratic” and described it as a way to give Ecuadorians “the power to decide their future in the next elections.”
“This is the best possible decision,” he said.
Soon after Lasso's announcement, the South American country’s top military leader warned that the armed forces would act “firmly” if any violence erupts. A strong contingent of military and police officers blocked access around the National Assembly building in Ecuador's capital, Quito.
Lawmakers had accused Lasso of not having intervened to end a contract between the state-owned oil transport company and a private tanker company. They argued Lasso knew the contract was full of irregularities and would cost the state millions in losses, something he has rejected as untrue.
Known colloquially as the “death cross,” the option to disband the congress and temporarily rule by decree was established in Ecuador's constitution in 2008 as a means of avoiding protracted periods of political paralysis.
In neighboring Peru, conflicts between the opposition-led legislature and president also led to attempts to oust each other last year. Then-President Pedro Castillo tried to dissolve Congress and head off his own impeachment in December, but lawmakers quickly voted him out of power and law enforcement arrested him, which resulted in months of deadly protests carried out for the most part by Indigenous peoples and peasants.
Ecuadorian legal analyst Ramiro Aguilar said a conflict between the assembly and the president can last years, and "it is a conflict that paralyzes the country.” He added, however, that if the president disbands the assembly, the country loses democratic debate during the interim.
“There will be a unilateral voice of the executive branch imposing a course without the counterweight of the assembly and the country loses credibility, because it is left with a weak institutional framework,” Aguilar said.
The National Electoral Council now has seven days to call presidential and legislative elections, which must be held within 90 days. Those elected will finish the terms of Lasso and the lawmakers he ousted, which had been set to end in May 2025. Lasso can choose to run in the election.
Lasso, a former banker, was elected in 2021 and has clashed from the start with a strong opposition in the 137-member National Assembly. He defended himself before Congress on Tuesday, insisting there was no proof or testimony of wrongdoing.
Lasso’s governing powers are now limited. Constitutional attorney Ismael Quintana explained that the president can only address economic and administrative matters, and the Constitutional Court will have to approve his decisions.
After Lasso announced his decision Wednesday, the head of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces, Gen. Nelson Proaño, called on Ecuadorians to maintain respect for the law and warned against rupturing the constitutional order through violence.
If violence erupts, the armed forces and police “will act firmly," he said.
Lasso’s move quickly led to criticism from the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, which in recent years has carried out protests that have virtually paralyzed the country. Its leader, Leonidas Iza Salazar, said Lasso “launched a cowardly self-coup with the help of the police and the armed forces, without citizen support” as he faced “imminent dismissal.”
Will Freeman, fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Lasso's decision signals that “he was aware the opposition had enough votes to impeach him, and maybe then some.” He said mass protests are likely in the coming days.
“It’s also hard to imagine Lasso is making this move without the tacit support of top brass in the military,” he said. “In the past, protests have tended to turn destructive quickly — and security forces have also cracked down.”
By REGINA GARCIA CANO and GONZALO SOLANO Associated Press
Associated Press writer Regina Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.
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