Ecuador court rejects lawmakers' challenges to president's disbanding of National Assembly

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador's Constitutional Court voted unanimously Thursday to reject multiple challenges that sought to invalidate President Guillermo Lasso's decree dissolving the opposition-led National Assembly as it tried to oust him in an impeachment trial.

With the ruling, there are no impediments for the country's electoral body to call elections for president and the legislature, which are tentatively set for August.

In challenging Lasso's dissolution of the legislature Wednesday, his adversaries tried to persuade the Constitutional Court to rule that the move was illegal on the grounds Ecuador is not facing any urgent crisis. But the court said it does not have jurisdiction to “rule on the verification and motivation of the cause of serious political crisis and internal upheaval invoked" by Lasso to dissolve the assembly.

The conservative president, who sparred with the left-leaning assembly over his pro-business agenda since taking office in 2021, disbanded the chamber under a constitutional provision. Challenges to his decision were filed in the court by three opposition parties, the former president of the assembly, and two private citizens.

Lasso made the first use of a 2008 constitutional provision that allows the president to dissolve the National Assembly during times of political crisis, with the requirement that new elections be held for both lawmakers and the president.

A lawsuit filed by the assembly’s former head, Virgilio Saquicela, argued that Lasso’s move violated the constitution because the country was not experiencing any social upheaval. Lasso’s detractors argued that the president chose to disband the chamber merely to avoid his own ouster.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Saquicela slammed Lasso’s move as a last-minute ploy to avoid his removal once it became clear that was under way.

“When he saw that he didn’t have the votes, he got scared,” Saquicela said.

Minister of Government Henry Cucalón defended Lasso’s decision during a news conference Thursday, arguing that the constitution makes it clear that the legislature’s dismissal is up to the president’s “judgment, criteria, discretion and reason,” and that it does not require approval of any other entity.

The Constitutional Court is known for acting slowly, but lawmakers had urged the panel to move quickly this time.

Medardo Oleas, a lawyer and electoral analyst, said lawmakers wanted the court to decide quickly because once an election date is set “no authority may interfere in the carrying out of the process." He said that if the Constitutional Court interfered in those circumstances, its members “could be dismissed.”

The National Electoral Council has tentatively chosen Aug. 20 as election day. If needed, a runoff would take place Oct. 15.

The president appears to have the support of the armed forces, but faces pushback from critics including a powerful confederation of Indigenous groups that has nearly paralyzed Ecuador with protests in the past.

Lasso can now govern for up to six months by means of decrees on economic and administrative issues under the oversight of the Constitutional Court. The National Electoral Council is required to set a date for presidential and legislative elections within seven days from Lasso’s decision.

Those elected would finish the terms of Lasso and the lawmakers he ousted, which had been set to end in May 2025. Lasso, a former banker, can choose to run in the election.

Lawmakers seeking Lasso's removal by impeachment accused him of not having intervened to end a contract between the state-owned oil transport company and a private tanker company. They argued Lasso knew the contract was full of irregularities and would cost the state millions in losses.

During impeachment proceedings Tuesday, Lasso noted the contract predated his administration. He also said that the state-owned company experienced losses of $6 million a year before he took office and that it has seen $180 million in profits under his watch.

Lasso had clashed from the start of his four-year term with the assembly. He accused them Wednesday of focusing “on destabilizing the government.” On Tuesday, he dismissively referred to their impeachment allegations against him as stretching “the limits of human imagination.”

Saquicela accused Lasso’s government of being “incapable of solving the real problems of Ecuadorians,” including health, transportation and security issues.

He rejected any shared responsibility for the turmoil, arguing that the assembly complied with its constitutional obligation to legislate.

“I do not want to justify whether the assembly has been good or bad, what I defend is the constitutional framework,” he said. “However, we believe that as a political class, we fell short in our legislating and oversight duties.”