The small Andean nation of Ecuador is facing a political crisis as the Congress and the courts turn on each other over new president Rafael Correa's plans for a Constituent Assembly and a "citizens' revolution" to build "21st century socialism" in the poverty-stricken country.
Correa, a self-described socialist and close ally of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, was elected late last year promising to redirect Ecuador's oil wealth into social spending, increase popular democracy and limit the power of the traditional political parties. Central to this platform is convoking a popular Constituent Assembly to rewrite Ecuador's constitution.
In February the 100-member Congress, which is controlled by parties hostile to Correa and his policies, passed a bill allowing a referendum on the assembly after the opposition Patriotic Society Party (PSP) of former president Lucio Gutierrez voted in favour. However there was an immediate dispute over the power that the assembly will have, Correa arguing for a plenary power enabling it to dismiss not only the Congress and courts, but also the president.
While the Congress disagreed, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) endorsed Correa's statements and announced on March 1 that the referendum would be held on April 15. In response, a majority of Congress, including the PSP, voted to sack the president of the TSE. The court immediately fired back, sacking the 57 members of Congress responsible and setting up a police cordon to prevent the sacked members from entering.
The Constitutional Tribunal has refused to rule on an appeal by the fired lawmakers until Congress endorses it. Congress, however, is unable to convene, as it can't achieve the required quorum of 51 legislators.
On March 13, 20 legislators broke through police lines and entered the Congress before being removed by riot police using tear gas. Correa blamed the ousted members of Congress for the violence, saying, "These people want to create chaos because they know they're already out".
The ousted legislators, made up of members of parties with close ties to Ecuador's financial oligarchy, have threatened to set up a rival congress in Guayaquil, the country's second major city and base of the right-wing Social Christian Party.
The Constitutional Tribunal has also warned Correa to obey its forthcoming ruling on the validity of the referendum, but Correa disputes the court's power to rule on the matter, and has threatened to call mass protests to ensure that the assembly goes ahead.
Humberto Cholango from ECUARUNARI, one of the organisations representing Ecuador's approximately 40% indigenous population, has also called for a massive mobilisation of all the indigenous and social movements of the country to defend the assembly.
If the referendum is successful, it will allow the election of 130 people who will have four months to rewrite the constitution. A recent poll shows that only 17% of Ecuadorians are satisfied with the Congress, which is regarded as corrupt, while over 75% support the Constituent Assembly.