Ecuador: chief of electoral authority quits over president's push to amend constitution

The head of Ecuador's top electoral body quit on Saturday to protest President Alfredo Palacio's renewed attempt to bypass congress in calling a referendum on amending the Andean nation's constitution.

"I am not going to lend myself to violate the constitution," Gilberto Vaca told reporters, implying that the seven-member Supreme Electoral Tribunal might approve the presidential request, and he wanted no part of it.

Palacio on Thursday asked the tribunal to call a Jan. 22 referendum asking Ecuadoreans if they approve of a constitutional assembly to overhaul the country's battered democratic institutions.

The electoral tribunal on Oct. 20 rejected a similar request, ruling that congressional approval was necessary to schedule a ballot. Lawmakers had complained that Palacio exceeded his legal authority by sidestepping the legislature.

"I do not wish to violate the constitution, but nor do I want to be an obstacle if on the electoral tribunal a majority of members wish to make another decision," Vaca said Saturday.

Palacio has been feuding with Congress since October, when it rejected a list of 17 referendum items including procedures for recalling legislators and the president.

He maintains that Ecuador needs a new constitution after a series of coups and power struggles that have forced three presidents in the last eight years from office before their terms ended.

Palacio, an elected vice president, took over the presidency in April after Congress ousted then-President Lucio Gutierrez over his decision to disband the Supreme Court.

Gutierrez's action sparked massive protests by Ecuadoreans who believed he was trying to illegally expand his authority. Palacio is scheduled to finish out Gutierrez's term, which ends in January 2007.

Gutierrez was arrested Oct. 14 after renouncing political asylum in Colombia and flying home, insisting he was returning to reclaim the presidency, AP reports. P.T.

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