QUITO, ECUADOR — Voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution Sunday that will concentrate power in the hands of socialist President Rafael Correa, advance his reformist agenda and enable him to remain in office until 2017, exit polls indicated.
The constitution was drafted last summer by a special congress convened by Correa, who was elected in a 2006 landslide by voters exasperated by this country's chronic corruption, political instability and ineffectual lawmakers.
According to the exit count conducted by government-commissioned pollster Santiago Perez, 66% approved the constitution and 25% voted against it. The independent Cedatos-Gallup poll said the yes vote was 70%. Voters were required by law to vote on the constitution as a package, not by individual provisions.
Very early returns showed 65% support with 5% of the vote counted.
At a rally in Guayaquil after the exit poll results were released, Correa exulted in what he termed his "historic" victory and extended an olive branch to opponents.
"I call on all Ecuadoreans of good will and faith to put their shoulders and hearts together and build together the Ecuador that we have been fighting and hoping for and which starting today is approaching reality," Correa said.
Correa is one of several leftist Latin American leaders including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales who have led the region's shift from free market neo-liberalism toward a stronger government hand in social programs and natural resource policy.
A basket case
Over the last decade, Ecuador has been Latin America's basket case, going through economic meltdowns and seven different presidents, three of whom were ousted by coups. The country tied its currency to the U.S. dollar in 2000 to control runaway inflation.
A majority interviewed as they emerged from downtown Quito polling places said they voted to approve the constitution as a way out of Ecuador's political morass. Although few pointed to specific clauses, they said they trusted Correa to create a less corrupt and more prosperous nation.
Previous leaders "ran the country like their own private hacienda for too long," said construction worker Francisco Tuaponte, who said he barely makes enough money to keep from starving. "Correa will get us out of the mess we're in."
Among the new provisions is one that gives the president -- who had been restricted to a single term -- the option of running for reelection. As far as Correa is concerned, he would be starting fresh with the new constitution, free to pursue the presidency in elections planned for next year, and again in 2013 if victorious. So he could be in office until 2017.
The new laws also ascribe rights to nature, including a ban on transgenic crops, and permit civil unions of homosexual couples. They would also grant a right to seek family planning advice, a provision the Roman Catholic Church opposed. Abortion is illegal.
Provisions that require farmland to be "socially useful" appear to give the state the power to confiscate unutilized properties and redistribute them to the poor. The nation's central bank will lose its autonomy and be subject to presidential policy.
"It's a mandate for profound national transformation," said Correa supporter and Assemblyman Norman Wray.
But some legal analysts expressed alarm at the powers the constitution gives Correa to control the branches of government. It would enable him to appoint a special Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control whose powers could supersede those of elected governors and Congress.
The council may appoint officials such as bank regulators and prosecutors to the electoral panel as well as judges.
"Ecuador has long seen its governability blockaded by its politicians, but I'm afraid this constitution is not going to help. It's only going to heighten the problems," said Simon Pachano, a political scientist at a Quito graduate school known as FLACSO.
Felipe Mantilla, a former interior minister and now dean of the law school at Guayaquil's Espiritu Santo University, said the new constitution would create an ominous "hyper-presidentialism."
"This will guarantee the president's future interference in the judiciary, giving him the power potentially to review Supreme Court decisions, which will only create more legal insecurity," Mantilla said.
But Correa supporters in government dismissed the notion that Correa or any president can gain excessive power. Lawmaker and Correa ally Paco Velasco referred to the three presidents who had been thrown out of office since 1997.
"Ecuador has a long history of rejecting presidents who try to avoid giving accounts, so I don't think that's going to be an issue," Velasco said. "This will open the gates of democracy, not close them."
The opposition's lightning rod was Jaime Nebot, a presidential aspirant who is mayor of Guayaquil, the booming coastal city where the nation's economic power is concentrated.
"The vote legitimizes Correa's proposal to have the state intervene more in the economy, assigning resources and establishing priorities," said Maria de la Paz Vela of Gestion magazine. "I think that's best left up to the market."
Special correspondent Paul Rosero contributed to this report.