Reduction of assembly members in Ecuador: modifying everything to change nothing

Coauthor Gabriel Galán Melo/Latinoamérica21

Ecuador will hold its twelfth popular consultation since the return to democracy. This tool of direct democracy has been used by seven presidents in that period. Currently, the consultation proposed by the government of Guillermo Lasso contains eight questions and proposes constitutional reforms on issues such as the extradition of Ecuadorians, the autonomy of the Attorney General’s Office, or the incorporation of a water protection subsystem of the National System of Protected Areas. But perhaps the most controversial question, in spite of the presumed massive acceptance by the citizens, is the one that proposes the reduction of the number of assembly members.

The last two legislatures have had very low approval by the citizens. And although, in general, parliaments do not enjoy the majority popular acceptance in Latin American presidential systems, the situation in Ecuador is particular. The National Assembly which ended in 2021 ended with an approval rating of 2%, and the current Parliament has an approval rating of between 8% and 11%.

The reasons for the discontent are useless disputes, the approval of banal resolutions that do not correct the country’s problems, accusations of corruption, and continuous tension with the Executive, which exposes in the media the vices of national politics. Although this has generated a crisis of legitimacy, it is absurd to affirm (as the promoters of the popular consultation do) that the crisis will be solved with a reduction in the number of representatives.

It would rather seem that the national government, taking advantage of the tiny acceptance of the Parliament, seeks to push for the reduction of approximately 20 assembly members as a way to gain legitimacy for its also ailing administration. Except for the positive result of the vaccination plan against COVID-19, Lasso has not found a way to promote reforms nor has he created and executed public policies to address issues such as the provision of medicines, the repair of infrastructure, or the development of a basic plan against child malnutrition.

In this context, the Government has stated that it has decided to promote the reduction of the number of assembly members due to the alleged lack of credibility of the current legislature, due to its low legislative production, scarce supervision, and manifest disconnection with the citizens’ demands. And, on the other hand, it would also serve to correct an alleged overrepresentation of the small provinces of the country.

The lack of credibility in the legislature is real, however, if we analyze the acceptance percentages of other Ecuadorian institutions, all of them, without exception, show low levels of legitimacy. In other words, the problem is not only in the National Assembly but in the entire Ecuadorian institutional framework. In the case of the Executive, for example, its valuation has varied between 11% and 25%, according to several pollsters.

Thus, the threat of “cross death” has been permanent: on the side of the Presidency, the fact of dissolving the Parliament due to a serious political crisis and internal commotion and, on the other side, the fact that the National Assembly would dismiss the President for the same reason.

Furthermore, the alleged reduction of assembly members would apply as of the election of 2025, since no reform can be retroactive, so it would not affect the current assembly members. Rather, the logical thing to do would be to channel a process of revocation of mandate in which the citizens decide, but this has not been done. According to the Constitution, there are control mechanisms for the questionable work of legislators, without the need to sacrifice one of the most important elements of democracy: representation.

Although the Government claims that there is an over-representation in the Parliament, it focuses exclusively on the quantitative aspect, i.e., the number of assembly members currently elected for each constituency. The reform seeks to give more weight to the representatives of the national constituency, which would increase from 15 to 36 representatives. With respect to the provinces, especially the less populated ones such as Carchi, Bolivar, Sucumbios, Napo, Orellana, Pastaza, Zamora Chinchipe and Morona Santiago, they would be left with only one representative.

Consequently, the proposal does not take into consideration the diversity and heterogeneity in the levels of development of several of the country’s 24 provinces. With the reform, Guayas and Pichincha would comprise 18% of the total number of assembly members; national legislators, 31%, and the remaining 22 provinces, 51%.

The Government is not taking into account, in turn, that in these new one-representative provinces, where the ethnic cleavage is well-marked, it would be counterproductive to leave only one legislator as a representative, since a large part of the population would be underrepresented.

According to the German political scientist Dieter Nohlen, electoral systems try to meet three types of demands: concentration, which facilitates governance; representation, and participation. Of these, concentration and representation have an inversely proportional relationship, i.e., when one is prioritized, the other decreases, and vice versa.

In this framework, the proposal may seek, in theory, to improve governance levels at the cost of representativeness. The Government’s proposal would prioritize concentration by electing more national assembly members, who benefit from the dragging of the presidential vote, thus ensuring a higher number of pro-government legislators. However, two elements are not considered: the seat allocation formula and the number of seats to be elected in each constituency.

In the 36-seat national constituency, for example, to which a formula would be applied (Webster’s formula) that naturally tends to further fragment the composition of Parliament, the result will still be a good number of political parties, thus reaching few seats. Therefore, the reform, as it has been elaborated, would still not substantially affect the current model.

The fragmentation of our party system is, undoubtedly, one of the variables that directly affect the relations between the Executive and the Legislative. However, if we apply the proposed reform to the current Parliament, it does not solve the problem, and rather shows that the fragmentation of our party system is a structural feature of Ecuadorian politics.

In conclusion, the reduction of assembly members proposed by the Government is useless to resolve the structural problems of our politics, such as the fragmentation of the party system, and even less to improve the relations between the Executive and the Legislative. Neither would it be a sanction to the current legislators (who are deeply criticized) because the reform would in no way limit them, nor would it guarantee an improvement in the future legislative production, or the indispensable probity of the Parliamentarians. In short, the proposed reduction of assembly members aims at modifying everything in order to change nothing.

Gabriel Galán Melo is a professor at Universidad Hemisferios, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar and Universidad Internacional SEK. He holds a Master’s degree in Law from the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador. PhD from Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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