On May 17, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso’s invocation of muerte cruzada (“crossed death”) shook the political system. Lasso faced fierce opposition and an impeachment trial that would mean his near certain removal on charges of embezzlement. In this context, Lasso dissolved the legislative branch and his own presidency and called for snap elections. These actions are more consistent with parliamentary politics than presidentialism. Despite its novelty, the act did not plunge the country into crisis as some critics warned, nor did it mark a death knell for Ecuadorian democracy, as others argued. To the contrary, muerte cruzada acted as a constitutional release valve, helping dissipate popular discontent and providing a democratic exit for an unpopular president who was facing his second impeachment trial and third motion for impeachment in two years.
Lasso faced political threats to his survival almost immediately after taking office in May 2021. In December 2021, he comfortably faced down an impeachment motion related to offshore accounts revealed in the Pandora Papers. In June 2022, amid countrywide protests and a general strike— spearheaded by Leonidas Iza and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and supported by ex-president Rafael Correa’s Union for Hope (UNES) coalition— the National Assembly debated another impeachment motion. After negotiations, Lasso escaped with 12 votes to spare. However, with corruption scandals enveloping both his family and government ministers, Lasso’s most recent impeachment trial has been more fraught and he could not garner the necessary votes to survive. Instead, Lasso turned to this peculiar constitutional tool.
Following article 148 of Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution, muerte cruzada is a mechanism that allows the president or the National Assembly to dissolve the other power and call for snap elections for both branches within 90 days. The president can use it only once and only in the first three years of his term. The president can do so for any of three circumstances: 1) if he considers that the Assembly has carried out functions that do not correspond to it, 2) if the Assembly obstructs the National Development Plan, or 3) if there is a serious political crisis and internal commotion. There is nothing else like it in any other presidential democracy—albeit the Peruvian constitution allows the president to dissolve Congress and call for new elections if two cabinets cannot secure the confidence of Congress, but the presidency is not dissolved in the Peruvian case.
Paradoxically, muerte cruzada exists as a response to the country’s history of extreme presidential instability. Until Rafael Correa (2007-2017), no president in the country’s history had served two full terms consecutively. Remarkably, José María Velasco Ibarra, perhaps the country’s most important twentieth-century politician, completed only one of the five presidential terms he served between 1934 and 1972. In the tumultuous period from 1931 to 1948, there were 20 different heads of state, with only Carlos Alberto Arroyo del Río finishing his four-year period. In more recent times, none of the three presidents elected between 1997 and 2005 completed their mandates. Jamil Mahuad fell to a military coup while two others, Abdalá Bucaram and Lucio Gutiérrez, were removed through drummed up legislative processes. While muerte cruzada does not eliminate the country’s political instability, it does modulate it by providing an instrument to resolve executive-legislative deadlock.
It is worth recognizing that muerte cruzada provides a constitutional exit to the type of presidential crisis that often ends unconstitutionally. Just look at Martín Vizcarra’s constitutionally-dubious dissolution of the Peruvian Congress, the military-aided removal of Evo Morales in Bolivia, or several other unconstitutional or otherwise controversial resolutions to executive-legislative crises. Instead of inflaming tensions, Lasso’s Constitutional Court-supported dissolution of the government has decreased political tension and mollified erstwhile opponents. Iza, one of Lasso’s fiercest critics, called on CONAIE member groups to maintain assemblies, but notably, without calling for protests. There is also a democratic justification for the muerte cruzada, insofar as it puts the president’s fate in the hands of the president as well as voters. In this case, an astounding 91% of Ecuadorians supported the dissolution of the National Assembly and early general elections.
Defenders of presidentialism may suggest that snap elections set a dangerous precedent in a place like Ecuador, loosening the fixed legislative and presidential terms that provide stability and predictability to the political game. Undeniably, it would be better if every Ecuadorian president completed his or her four-year term with high popular approval and ample legislative support. However, that has been historically difficult to achieve in a country with one of the world’s most fragmented party systems. Muerte cruzada recognizes this reality.
Without a doubt, the inclusion of this constitutional article under the popular Correa was the product of the president’s desire to avoid the same fate as his predecessors. Of course, Lasso did not enjoy Correa’s popularity. Never broadly popular to begin with, Lasso had the misfortune of governing during a period in which security has deteriorated dramatically and in which the cost of living has risen considerably. As a result, he opted to rule for six more months—the period until the next government—rather than face the certainty of immediate removal via impeachment. Until then, Lasso can rule by decree on economic matters with the Constitutional Court acting as a horizontal check on his policies.
This parliamentarization of presidentialism is not without its flaws. It weakens the ability of the legislature to hold presidents accountable for truly impeachable offenses and gives presidents six months in which they can rule by decree with limited oversight. However, by providing a constitutional mechanism to diffuse presidential crises and an alternative to unconstitutional removals, muerte cruzada serves a pragmatic purpose. It may not make Ecuadorian democracy better, but does not make it worse.
John Polga-Hecimovich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the United States Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.