Ecuador's constitution of the early twenty-first century was adopted by popular vote on 15 January 1978 (43 percent yes; 32 percent no; 23 percent spoiled ballots) and went into effect in August 1979. It is the nation's seventeenth since Ecuador became independent in 1830, but few have touched the lives of most of the population. The impact on the political process has been greater, however, as institutional rules and procedures have been altered through the years.
The 1830 charter, which brought together the departments of Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca in a confederation, was replaced five years later by a more centralized constitutional system. This, in turn, was supplanted in 1843 by the "Charter of Slavery" imposed by Juan José Flores, who, having begun his second term as president in 1839, sought to enshrine his personalist rule through a constitution that granted him dictatorial powers while stressing separation of church and state. It was replaced following his ouster from power in 1845, and in 1861 another constitution provided for direct popular suffrage and recognized Catholicism as the state religion. Eight years later Gabriel García Moreno decreed a new document, known as the "Black Charter," which further enhanced the role of the Roman Catholic Church by giving it unchallenged control over education. The secular authority of the Church was underlined by the requirement that citizenship be denied to non-Catholics.
The Constitution of 1897, adopted after Eloy Alfaro led the Liberals to power, reversed the position of Catholicism and broadened the recognition of individual rights; the death penalty was abolished and religious freedom was made explicit. In 1906 Alfaro convened a Constituent Assembly to draft a new document that explicitly called for separation of church and state while extending the constitutional commitment to the protection of basic civil rights and privileges.
Women acquired the right to vote in the Constitution of 1929—the first such action in Latin America. It was also a document that, in reaction against presidential excesses, provided Congress with powers that virtually crippled the central government. Any minister could be dismissed through a vote of no confidence, and presidential authority was severely restricted. Reorganization of Congress included the establishment of both regional and functional representation. Thus there were, among others, senators for industry and for agriculture from both the coast and the highlands. Representatives of labor and of the armed forces were also included. Overall, traditional elites benefited from the introduction of functional senators chosen by leaders of Ecuador's major interest associations.
Ecuador's fourteenth and fifteenth constitutions were promulgated in 1945 and 1946, at a time when José María Velasco Ibarra had returned to power and was seeking to legitimize and restructure the nature of executive rule. The second of these survived until the convening of a Constituent Assembly in 1966 following the resignation of a military junta. It resulted in the sixteenth constitution, promulgated on 25 May 1967, which took effect upon the inauguration of Velasco Ibarra to his fifth term on 1 September 1968. It created a large number of new autonomous state agencies outside the budgetary and adminis trative control of the chief executive; regional interests were also strengthened at the expense of the central government through a decentralized system of disbursing taxes. When Velasco was forced out of office in 1972, the 1967 constitution was set aside.
When the military junta decided in 1976 to move toward the reestablishment of elected government, it named a commission to study the question of constitutional forms. The commission eventually drew up two choices for submission to a plebiscite: a revision of the 1945 constitution and a new charter. The second was chosen by nearly 75 percent of the electorate and, with minor adjustments, has been in effect since the re-inauguration of civilian government in August 1979. Perhaps the most striking change was the extension of suffrage to illiterates for the first time. In addition, the bicameral legislature became a unicameral body from which functional representatives were excluded. Four economic sectors were specified: public, private, mixed public-private, and communitarian. There was controversy over the communitarian, which was viewed by traditional elites as a threat to private property. In practice this would prove to be a misplaced concern.
New electoral regulations accompanying the 1978 Constitution introduced a double round of presidential elections, so that the eventual victor would enter office with a clear majority. There were also efforts to regulate political parties in order to minimize the degree of fragmentation which had long been prevalent. Among other things, parties failing to poll 5 percent of the vote in two consecutive elections would lose official recognition by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
The new constitution was viewed as a reflection of the reformist mood which gripped Ecuador in the 1970s, underlined by the emergence of a new generation of political leaders to replace Velasco, Camilo Ponce Enríquez, Galo Plaza Lasso, Otto Arosemena Gómez, and Carlos Julio Arosemena Godoy. In practice it has encouraged popular electoral participation and some opening of the system, but not to such an extent that traditional elitist attitudes and interests have been threatened. While there have been three successive constitutional periods since the armed forces relinquished power, each has been plagued by instability, intransigent opposition, congressional obstructionism, and judicial timidity in the face of partisan attacks. Thus the constitutional structures, while more consistent with a modernizing nation, have not significantly encouraged a maturation of the political process in Ecuador. In 1997, when Congress voted Abdalá Bucaram, then president, out of office, the political leaders formed a new constitutional assembly. The new constitution became law in 1998. It generally strengthened the executive branch, reduced congressional power to remove cabinet-level officials, and abolished the congressional mid-term elections.
George I. Blanksten, Ecuador: Constitutions and Caudillos (1951).
Albert William Bork and Georg Maier, Historical Dictionary of Ecuador (1975).
Osvaldo Hurtado, Political Power in Ecuador, translated by Nick D. Mills, Jr. (1980).
John D. Martz, The Politics of Petroleum in Ecuador (1987).
David W. Schodt, Ecuador, an Andean Enigma (1987).
Echeverría, Julio. El desafío constitucional: Crisis institucional y proceso político en el Ecuador. Quito, Ecuador: Ediciones AbyaYala, 2006.
John D. Martz