Ecuador’s President Dissolves Congress Amid Impeachment Trial

President Guillermo Lasso of Ecuador disbanded the country’s opposition-led National Assembly on Wednesday, a drastic move as the right-leaning leader faced impeachment proceedings over accusations of embezzlement.

The constitutional measure, never before used, allows the president to rule by decree until new elections can be held, marking a moment of extraordinary political turbulence for a country of 18 million already in turmoil.

Ecuador has long been a relative haven in the region, but in recent years it has been convulsed by rising violence and a skyrocketing homicide rate as increasingly powerful narco-trafficking groups fight for territory.

Opposition lawmakers accused Mr. Lasso of turning a blind eye to irregularities and embezzlement in a contract between a state-run shipping company and an oil tanker company that wasn’t delivering on its promises — allegations first made in news reports. The country’s constitutional court later approved a charge of embezzlement against the president but denied two charges of bribery.

The charge was being investigated by congress and is political in nature. It is not a criminal charge.

Last week, the National Assembly voted to begin impeachment hearings, but all proceedings were permanently halted once Mr. Lasso dissolved congress.

The president has repeatedly denied the charges, pointing out that the contract was signed before he took office.

“The prosecutors of this trial have acknowledged that they have nothing,” Mr. Lasso said on Tuesday during the impeachment proceeding. “This inquiry is political.”

He added, “This is not about saving a presidency, but about preserving a functioning democracy.”

This was the second time the opposition had tried to remove Mr. Lasso from the presidency since he took office in 2021.

He has faced growing criticism and petitions for his removal from civil society groups in the face of soaring rates of crime, extortion, kidnappings and robberies. Gangs battle for control of drug routes and have gained greater control over the country’s prisons, leading to several prison riots and massacres over the last three years.

For weeks, the president and congress were locked in a game of brinkmanship, with legislators threatening to impeach and remove Mr. Lasso as he threatened to dissolve congress and call new elections — a move known in Ecuador as muerte cruzada, or mutually assured death.

The mechanism was written into the Constitution in 2008 as a tool to end deadlocks between the presidency and the legislature. But until now, no president had ever enacted it.

With Mr. Lasso’s approval ratings plummeting, in some cases below 20 percent, he will govern by decree until new elections are held. The Constitution gives the national election body seven days to set a date for a presidential and legislative vote. The newly elected president and National Assembly would then govern until the end of the original term, 2025.

The disbanding of congress provides temporary stability for the country, said Arianna Tanca, an Ecuadorean political scientist, allowing Mr. Lasso to pass laws without a deadlock and giving political parties the chance for a “reset.”

But it also threatens to undercut the country’s democracy. A head of government calling for new elections is common in parliamentary democracies, but has no parallel in other presidential democracies in Latin America, said Mauricio Alarcón Salvador, the director of Transparency International’s chapter in Ecuador.

“To see a president shut down the assembly and assume legislative power in a transitory manner is, undoubtedly, a blow to democracy,” he said, “and, above all, to the system of checks and balances that should be in force in any democracy in the world.”

Mr. Lasso’s decision comes amid upheaval in the region. In December, Peru’s president attempted to dissolve congress — in this case an illegal move that led to his removal and arrest, and then to widespread protests that left dozens of people dead.

In January, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil stormed government buildings in the capital, arguing that November’s election, in which he was defeated, had been rigged.

Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Mr. Lasso’s decision to go around legislators could — possibly — be good for him.

“Even though he is very unpopular now, I could see six months of rule by decree actually boosting his popularity if he can do something quickly about the twin crises of crime, and hunger and poverty,” he said. “Although, given his track record, that’s a big if.”

Some human rights activists said they worry that Mr. Lasso’s power to govern by decree could open the door for serious rights violations, like using terrorism laws to target Indigenous organizations and other groups that might oppose him.

“The executive branch governing by decree could continue to exacerbate and favor the interests of the banks, the oil mining companies and certain privileged sectors, to the detriment of the rights of the majorities,” said Lina María Espinosa, a human rights lawyer.

Mr. Lasso’s first act on Wednesday under his new powers was a tax cut for businesses and middle-class Ecuadoreans, a move that was welcomed by María Paz Jervis, the president of the Chambers of Industries and Production, a business group.

While the dissolution of the legislature could lead to unrest and hurt the economy, Ms. Jervis said new elections were a positive development for a country that needed economic growth, to fight poverty and to produce more jobs.

“After this weariness, after this burden that we have felt with this political class, we believe that it is the moment to inaugurate a new politics in Ecuador,” she said.

José María León Cabrera contributed reporting.

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