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Ecuador congress ousts president amid protests { April 20 2005 }

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Ecuador's Congress ousts president
By Andy Webb-Vidal in Caracas
Published: April 20 2005 21:24 | Last updated: April 21 2005 00:38

Lucio Gutiérrez, Ecuador's president, was ousted from government on Wednesday after legislators voted to remove him from office for “abandoning his post” at the helm of South America's least stable country.

Mr Gutiérrez's ousting, agreed on by 62 of the 100 deputies in Congress, marked the climax of a week of growing protests by tens of thousands of people in Quito, the capital, and political turmoil stemming from the dismissal last week of Supreme Court judges by allies of the president.

Alfredo Palacio, the vice-president, was sworn in as the new head of state. It was not clear when new elections would be called, although there are likely to be calls from other governments in the region, in particular the US, for polls to be held soon to legitimise a new government.

Media reports from Quito said Mr Gutiérrez had asked for political asylum in Panama, the traditional destination for ousted Ecuadorean presidents.

On Wednesday night, however, there were reports suggesting he had been prevented from fleeing the country through Quito's international airport after the police appealed for his arrest.

Mr Gutiérrez's tumultuous exit from office is the mirror image of the circumstances that led to his appearance on to Ecuador's political stage five years ago. A former army officer, Mr Gutiérrez was elected in November 2002, two years after he took part in an indigenous uprising and a subsequent coup that toppled Jamil Mahuad, the then president.

Support for Mr Gutiérrez evaporated quickly in the afternoon after the military, which in Latin America and especially in Ecuador, traditionally has the final say in moments of instability, withdrew its support after the congressional vote and allowed protesters to reach the presidential palace in central Quito.

The head of the Ecuadorean joint chiefs of staff said the military could no longer support the beleaguered president, a decision that appears to have sealed his downfall.

In spite of higher-than-expected revenue from oil exports flowing into the dollarised economy, Mr Gutiérrez's popularity had progressively declined from about 60 per cent when he was first elected to below 5 per cent in recent weeks, according to recent polls.

Last November, he survived a drive by opponents to impeach him on allegations of misuse of public funds during preceding local elections.

Mr Gutiérrez came to power supported by Ecuador's large indigenous population but fiscal policies backed by the International Monetary Fund, his confrontational style, and allegations of cronyism cost him crucial support.

His ousting could facilitate the return of Abdala Bucaram, one of Mr Gutiérrez's presidential predecessors and a volatile political strongman dubbed “El Loco”.

Mr Bucaram, who has made clear his wishes to again lead his country, returned from asylum in Panama this month after being thrown out of officein 1997.

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