QUITO - Ecuadorans went to the polls Sunday to vote on a new constitution that expands the powers of President Rafael Correa and ushers his "21st century socialism," in lock step with leftist allies in Venezuela and Bolivia.
Balloting began throughout the country as scheduled at 1200 GMT.
Passed by a Constitutional Assembly on July 24, the new Magna Carta would strengthen the government's hold on the economy of this small nation of 13.9 million people -- half of whom live in poverty -- which is based chiefly on oil exports and money sent by its emigrants.
A poll by private opinion research firm Cedatos showed the reform was expected to be approved by more than 60 percent of Ecuadorans. Over 24 percent were likely to vote against it. A survey by Market, another independent pollster, predicted the new constitution would be approved 60 percent to 31 percent of the vote.
The government believes the winning margin will be 70 percent.
The constitution is inspired by the leftist majorities in power in Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia and their repudiation of the neoliberal policies of the 1990s, but falls short of nationalizing the country's national resources as Bolivia and Venezuela have done.
Its 444 articles expand presidential powers allegedly in an attempt to end political instability in a country that in the last 10 years has sent three presidents packing before their terms were up.
Branded as "hyperpresidentialist" by the conservative opposition, the new constitution would allow the president to run for two consecutive, four-year terms, dissolve Congress and call early elections.
Correa, 45, has already announced his intention to run for reelection in February 2009, if it is approved, in which case early elections would be convened by the Constitutional Assembly.
The new constitution would also close down all foreign military bases in Ecuador, forcing the United States to move its regional anti-drug operations, run for nearly 10 years from an air base in the port city of Manta.
Opposition leader and Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot has railed against the new constitution he says would create a centralized form of government that would threaten private property and which has already proved to be inefficient.
"Do you think we can model ourselves after Venezuela, a country swimming in oil money but whose people have to line up to get food, or Bolivia, a country split down the middle because its government doesn't understand?" Nebot recently told AFP.
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The Roman Catholic Church, a major player in this predominantly Catholic nation, has also criticized the new constitution, especially the articles it says will lead to the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage.
Around 9.7 million eligible voters can take part in Sunday's referendum, held from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm (1200-2200 GMT).
Ecuador's emigrant communities, the biggest being in Spain, the United States and Italy, are also eligible to vote.
Some 60,000 police and military have been deployed around the country and sales of alcoholic beverages have been banned from Friday to Monday, to prevent unrest.
But the "Yes" and "No" campaigns have so far produced no major incident, although some irregularities have been reported.
Citizen Participation, a non-governmental organization the Organization of American States (OAS) has hired to monitor the referendum, found government expenditures for the "Yes" campaign totaled 1.2 million dollars (822,000 euros), or 300 percent over the lawful limit.
The campaign for and against the new constitution came to a festive close Thursday, with opposition and government leaders converging on Guayaquil, a wealthy port city expected to vote "no" in the referendum and a possible center of unrest after the vote.
Correa, fearing Guayaquil might become a thorn on his government's side as Santa Cruz province is to Bolivian President Evo Morales, has asked the OAS to validate the final vote tally to cut short any unrest.
"You have to remain very alert to the losing side's usual argument discrediting a victory ... as a fraud," in order to justify their efforts at destabilizing the country, Correa told OAS officials in Ecuador.
OAS spokesman Enrique Correa said that, so far, his group has found "no signs of fraud in the works."