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Protests erupt as Ecuador scraps presidential term limits

Ecuador's legislature has voted overwhelmingly to lift presidential term limits from 2021. The opposition has accused President Rafael Correa of a power grab as the leftist-led government passes unpopular reforms.

The National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to end restrictions on the presidential office from 2021, joining the club of leftist-led Latin American nations that are allowing multiple re-elections.

Protesters armed with sticks and rocks battled riot police in the capital where lawmakers engaged in a marathon nine-hour debate before lifting term limits, stripping collective bargaining rights for public sector workers and placing the military in charge of domestic security.

Rights groups have criticized Correa for using his monopoly across all branches of government to stifle dissent, and they fear the latter measure will even further restrict freedom of expression.

At one point protesters on horseback were seen throwing spears at riot police who retaliated with tear gas and baton charges. Demonstrators later said 20 of their own were arrested.

"We're living in a dictatorship. This is a dictatorship because it's arrogant and authoritarian, it's a government that does what it wants with our resources," 43-year-old protester Patricia Pinto told the AFP news agency.

Popularity strong despite economic challenges

Ecuador Präsident Rafael Correa

Correa says when his term ends, he'll stand aside as president until at least 2021.

After taking office in 2007, President Correa became popular for his generous social spending that has boosted living standards. But in recent months the government has been forced to drastically cut back on spending and impose new taxes after global oil prices plunged to less than $40 a barrel.

It has

put his government on a collision course with many of his former supporters

including labor unions and indigenous groups as well as the traditional conservative opposition. But his popularity in the polls endures.

Correa's current term ends in 2017 and he has said he does not intend to run at that time. But analysts suspect he could appoint a caretaker president in his place and re-run indefinitely from 2021.

In Bolivia, backers of leftist President Evo Morales are also seeking to extend their leader's mandate. Bolivian voters will decide in a February referendum whether to change the constitution so Morales can run for re-election when his current five-year term expires in 2019.

Many in Ecuador had asked for a referendum like Bolivia. But Correa relied instead on his Alianza Pais party's super majority to pass the measures easily on a 100-8 vote in the 137-seat National Assembly.

Protests, sometimes violent, were also held in other main cities, including Guayaquil, Ecuador's most populous city.

jar/ng (AP, AFP)

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