Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso issued a decree on Wednesday to dissolve the country’s legislature, a day after the opposition-led body opened impeachment proceedings over his alleged corruption.
The decree released abruptly by the unpopular conservative president’s office states that Lasso is dissolving the unicameral National Assembly “due to a grave political crisis and national commotion.”
In dissolving congress, Lasso called on the National Electoral Council (CNE) to convene new elections.
It is the first time a president in Ecuador has dissolved the legislature.
By law, within seven days of publication of the decree, the CNE must convene to call new presidential and legislative elections to finish out the current term, which ends in 2025.
The elections must occur within 90 days, and Lasso, 67, may run for the presidency again, although his popularity is at a record low.
Until a new National Assembly is sworn in, Lasso is able to rule by decree, with checks by the constitutional court.
The Popular Front—an alliance of workers, teachers, rural, student and women’s organizations—called for a national protest to defend “rights and freedoms.”
Lasso’s impeachment trial opened on Tuesday, amid an ongoing spike in violence related to drug trafficking in the South American country and widespread anger over the rising cost of living.
Addressing the legislature, Lasso had proclaimed his “total, evident and unquestionable innocence.”
The majority left-wing opposition has accused Lasso of knowing about alleged corruption in state owned companies, in which his brother-in-law Danilo Carrera and a businessman accused of drug trafficking have been implicated.
Speaking on state television Wednesday, Lasso defended his decision to dissolve the National Assembly.
“It is a democratic decision not only because it is constitutional but because it returns to the Ecuadoran people the possibility to decide,” Lasso said, referencing the new elections.
The National Assembly building and government palace in central Quito were both under guard by security forces on Wednesday morning.
The head of the CNE, Diana Atamaint, appealed for calm.
“I call upon the political and institutional actors to carry out this unprecedented electoral process with the maturity and responsibility that characterize us,” Atamaint told a news conference.
“The armed forces and national police maintain and will continue to maintain their absolute respect for the constitution,” said General Nelson Proano, head of the combined armed forces, in a video released by the defense ministry.
Lasso’s actions may have been aimed at preventing his impeachment, but experts say it is likely to benefit the left-wing opposition and their exiled leader Rafael Correa, the former president (2007-17) who escaped to Belgium to avoid serving an eight-year corruption sentence.
Writing on Twitter, Correa branded the move “a coup d’etat.”
“This is illegal. It’s obvious that there is no state of internal commotion, rather a political trial in line with the constitution,” said Correa.
“In any case, it’s a great opportunity to send home Lasso, his government and his legislators for hire.”
Political scientist Santiago Cahuasqui, from the SEK University in Quito, told AFP that “the sectors of the right are weakened by the presence of a government with less than 15 per cent” approval rating.
In snap elections, “the center and left-wing sectors could have more possibilities and perspectives.”
Constitutional expert Rafael Oyarte told AFP that dissolving Congress carried few dividends for Lasso, as it would only benefit the left.
“While it is not sure they would win the presidency, one thing is sure: They would increase their number of legislators, which currently stands at 49 out of 117.”
Ecuador’s legislature tried to impeach Lasso in June last year, at a time of violent protests led by Indigenous people against the rising cost of living, but came up 12 votes short.
Leonidas Iza, the head of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities union, described Lasso’s move as a “cowardly self-coup with help from the armed forces and police” and warned that the country was on the brink of “dictatorship.”
Indigenous groups have played a key role in taking down three Ecuadoran presidents from 1997 to 2005.
After Lasso’s decree, Washington reaffirmed that it viewed Ecuador as a partner in key areas, such as fighting drug trafficking, but that it is watching events in Quito closely.
“We ultimately urge all government institutions and society and citizens to ensure that democratic processes are carried out for the Ecuadoran people,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said.