QUITO, Ecuador - Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa celebrated victory Monday after winning what he said was a "crushing victory" in a constitutional referendum aimed at broadening his powers.
Initial official returns, reflecting just five percent of the ballot, indicated 65-percent popular backing for the new basic law. But they were supported by unofficial exit polls showing that Correa's proposal had won between 66 percent and 70 percent of the vote.
"The new constitution has had a crushing victory," Correa said in opposition stronghold Guayaquil, on the Pacific coast. "It's a historic moment that transcends by far the people who by luck or accident have been involved in this process."
Organization of American States General Secretary Jose Miguel Insulza, in a statement, congratulated Correa "on very strong support granted by Ecuadoran people."
In a bid to avert unrest, Correa asked the opposition and all "no" voters to remain calm and issued a called to unity.
"We extend them our hand. Let them acknowledge defeat and let's strike out together in the new direction the great majority of Ecuadorans, as well as all Latin America, are setting: a society with more justice, much more equality and without so much ... misery."
Correa earlier had voiced hope for a solid "yes" vote, as he strives for what he calls a "21st century socialism" to more closely align Ecuador with leftist allies Venezuela and Bolivia, making it the latest South American country to chart a leftward course.
Passed by a Constitutional Assembly on July 24, the new Basic Law 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 home by its emigrants.
The proposed constitution is inspired by the leftist majorities in power in 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 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.
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 proven 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.
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.
Correa addressed those doubts in his victory speech to supporters.
"Let's see if the new constitution is pro-abortion, centralist, hyperpresidentialist, a harbinger of dictatorship. Let's see if all that is true."
He called on all sectors in Ecuador to join forces to move the country forward, but warned: "Not a single step backwards. All the progress we've made we'll not give up. We can only look to the future.
"Let's move forward together, but on the path of change, of the future."