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Ecuadorian president claims key referendum win

By the CNN Wire Staff
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa gestures as he celebrates after a fast count, by the National Electoral Council, of the votes of a referendum launched by him on Saturday.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa gestures as he celebrates after a fast count, by the National Electoral Council, of the votes of a referendum launched by him on Saturday.
  • "The truth has triumphed," he says
  • Exit polls show the referendum is likely to pass
  • Voters went to the polls Saturday
  • Ecuador
  • Rafael Correa

(CNN) -- Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa claimed victory in a referendum on government and social reforms that critics have charged is a thinly disguised attempt to consolidate more power.

"The Ecuadorian people have triumphed. The truth has triumphed," he said Saturday on state-run Ecuador TV.

Official results are not expected until later, but exit polls show the referendum is likely to pass.

Ecuadorians went to the polls Saturday to vote on a wide-ranging referendum that included innocuous questions such as whether to ban public shows where animals are killed.

But other questions were affronts to checks and balances and freedom of expression, critics charged.

One of the controversial questions asked was whether media owners and their shareholders should be prohibited from owning stock in any company outside of that industry. The same restriction would exist for those in the financial sector.

Correa has said that if approved, the measure would prevent conflicts of interest, but others see it differently.

"To ask a person to only be a shareholder in a media company, and not be able to invest in anything else, is not something realistic in a country like Ecuador," journalist Janeth Hinostroza said before the vote.

Another proposal would create a commission to regulate broadcast content to avoid "media excesses."

As stated on the referendum, the question lists sexual content, violence and discriminatory broadcasts that could be regulated. Critics like Hinostroza said that this power could be spread to censor news broadcasts and opinions.

"This is something that worries us because it will be a threat against freedom of expression," she said.

Roxana Alvarado, a lawmaker and supporter of Correa, said the news media is not being targeted.

"No one is talking about censorship," she said before the vote. "That is not the message, even if the media wants to make it so."

Part of the fear among press freedom advocates is based on the close relationship that Correa has with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has had some public confrontations with private media outlets in his country.

One of the measures proposes the creation of a special commission consisting of delegates selected by the president and the congress to restructure the judicial system.

"The judicial council has not performed its function because of its commitment to timidity and indecisiveness," Correa said in January. He said the special commission would have the power to evaluate and sanction judges with the goal of eliminating corruption.

With the president choosing one of the commission members and his majority congress choosing another, the president in effect would have control over the selection of new judges, critics have said.

"This means that with two votes, with two of the members, you can name judges, sanction them and remove them," said Ecuadorian analyst Santiago Guarderas.

Some wonder whether Correa is trying to reassert his authority after a period of unrest last September that he called an attempted coup.

On September 30, about 200 police officers protested for better pay. Correa went to the site of the protest in an attempt to appease them, but the opposite happened. Tensions rose, and the president was surrounded by protesters and whisked away to a police hospital. Ecuadorian troops eventually stormed the hospital and released the president.

"President Correa is attempting to incorporate more power, to have more control, to use this referendum against constitutional mechanisms, with the objective of having more power," said Carlos Alberto Montaner, an analyst, before the vote.

Polls closed on Saturday evening.

Journalist Andres Lopez contributed to this report.