By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) -Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso on Monday accepted defeat in a referendum on allowing extradition for organized crime, among other reforms, but added he would continue to fight drug trafficking and keep working to improve social conditions.
The results from Sunday’s voting worsened the political difficulties of Lasso, who has struggled to contain rising insecurity, protests by indigenous groups that have hurt the economy, and widespread violence in prisons.
The extradition referendum, one of eight reforms on the ballot, would have allowed Ecuadorean suspects to be sent abroad for trial on drugs and weapons charges, among others. Lasso advocated the change as a way to cut crime, which his government has blamed on the trans-national narcotics trade.
Though the practice would be new for Ecuador, Latin American countries, including Colombia and Mexico, often accede to extradition requests from the United States and other nations.
But 51.45% of votes had opposed the measure, the electoral authority said after the contents of more than 96% of ballot boxes had been counted.
“I accept that the majority doesn’t agree that these (crime) issues would be resolved with the tools put up for consideration in the referendum,” Lasso said in a televised speech.
“But I believe that we Ecuadoreans should have a broad and serious debate, without dogmas or ideologies, about how to face the threat that drug trafficking and its links to sectors of politics represent today,” he added.
Lasso also called on all political sectors to forget quarrels and reach a great agreement for the country’s benefit.
A proposed reform to give the attorney general more autonomy to choose prosecutors was also rejected, by 56.61% of votes counted so far.
A proposal to reduce the number of lawmakers in the 137-seat assembly to around 100 members also ended defeat, with the “no” vote securing nearly 53%.
Lasso, whose popularity is hovering around 20%, has clashed repeatedly with the opposition-controlled assembly, where some lawmakers tried to oust him during demonstrations that engulfed Ecuador last year.
Mayoral elections were held on the same day. Voters in the two largest cities supported candidates aligned with former President Rafael Correa.
Voters in Quito, the capital, elected Pabel Munoz, a member of Correa’s political movement, as mayor, while another, Aquiles Alvarez won in Guayaquil, ousting the Social Christian party after three decades of control of the mayoralty, according to preliminary data from the electoral court.
“The strong performance of the Correismo in the regional elections together with what appears to be a government loss in the referendum, if confirmed, leaves a very challenging political scenario for the Lasso administration,” J.P. Morgan said in a note.
The referendum defeats would further erode Lasso’s political capital, the note said, adding that renewed social protests could be destabilizing.
Correa, who left office in 2017 and lives in Belgium, faces eight years in prison in Ecuador on a corruption conviction.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Writing by David Alire Garcia, Julia Symmes Cobb and Oliver Griffin; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bradley Perrett)