Ecuador’s embattled president Lucio Gutierrez was unexpectedly thrown out of office yesterday after a week-long popular uprising in Quito and other cities in which he was accused of attempting to cling to power through dictatorial means.
An extraordinary session of Ecuador’s parliament, which convened amid the shouted slogans of tens of thousands of protesters in the streets outside, voted 60-0 to remove him. Almost as soon as the vote was complete, a helicopter carrying Mr Gutierrez and his wife, took off from the roof of the presidential palace, the Palacio Corondolet, and headed to Quito’s international airport.
Rumours swirled that Mr Gutierrez had requested political asylum in Panama, the established bolthole of many a disgraced Ecuadorian politician, but any hopes he might have had of leaving the country were stymied by a throng of demonstrators who poured on to the runway at Mariscal Sucre airport and prevented his plane from taking off.
Meanwhile, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Mr Gutierrez and two of his political allies – the culmination of a week of extraordinary revolt against a leader a little over halfway through his one and only four-year term of office.
Mr Gutierrez’s fatal error was to mishandle street protests which erupted a week ago over what was seen as grotesque political manipulation of the Supreme Court. He attempted to declare a state of emergency, only to backtrack after the protesters refused to disperse and the army did nothing to discourage them.
He also dismissed the Supreme Court he had appointed four months earlier, in an effort to placate his opponents. But the move was condemned as one more abuse of his presidential powers, and a rapid sequence of events over the past 48 hours led to his inexorable downfall.
Officially, the reason for Mr Gutierrez’s removal was dereliction of his office – a constitutional nicety that essentially meant he had lost the support of his ad hoc coalition in parliament and, more importantly, the backing of the armed forces.
He was immediately replaced by his vice-president, left-winger Alfredo Palacio, who is likely to serve in an interim capacity pending new elections.
Mr Palacio took the oath of office to loud cheers from Ecuadorian politicians who attended the hastily organised ceremony. “The dictatorship has ended,” he declared in his remarks on taking on the country’s leadership.
Mr Palacio is the eighth president to take office in Ecuador in nine years – a symptom not only of the country’s political weakness but also the precariousness of its economy, which like many in Latin America has seen the evisceration of the middle class and the mass emigration of hundreds of thousands of people to Europe and the United States.
Mr Gutierrez, a former army colonel from the Amazonian forests of Ecuador’s interior, came to power in November 2002 on a wave of left-wing populism, but failed to fulfil many of his electoral promises because of political weakness and deference to both the United States and the International Monetary Fund.