Quito: Ecuador`s President Rafael Correa hailed victory on Saturday after two polls showed him winning a referendum on judicial and media reforms that opponents say are a power grab undermining the Andean nation`s democracy.
"The Ecuadorean people have triumphed," said Correa, claiming an average 62 percent "Yes" vote on the 10 proposals.
If confirmed by the election authority, the result would strengthen the popular but domineering Correa`s political base in the South American OPEC member and put him in a strong position for a re-election bid in 2013.
A private tracking poll by Cedatos-Gallop showed an average 57 percent of voters backing all the questions in what was essentially a vote of confidence on the flamboyant Correa, 48, who has governed since 2007.
An exit poll by Santiago Perez Investigacion y Estudios showed more than 60 percent said "Yes" votes to all questions.
Official results were due later. Some opposition leaders, though, quickly acknowledged defeat.
Correa has maintained high popularity among the poor and lower-middle classes thanks to big spending on schools, roads and hospitals. Rivals accuse him of an autocratic streak akin to his ally Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, and fear he could use the reforms to persecute opponents.
"We`re giving Correa too much power, but it doesn`t matter. Someone has to tidy up this mess," said "Yes" voter Cesar Acosta, 67, echoing Correa`s original justification for the vote to root out graft and inefficiency in courts.
The most controversial two proposals set the foundations for a new justice system in which Correa will have more direct say over appointments. He argues that corrupt judges have to go so police can better fight crime in the nation of 14 million.
"We have to make big changes in the next 18 months. We`re going to face the opposition of mafias within the judiciary," Correa told state TV after claiming victory.
Analysts say Correa`s ability to control a new three-person panel charged with overhauling the justice system and appointing judges to the Supreme Court and lower tribunals will further concentrate power in the executive and limit checks.
"I think he`s tired of the Constitution," former presidential aide turned critic Alberto Acosta said.
Other reforms include more controls on media, with whom Correa has been duelling regularly, and a ban on bullfights to the consternation of fans of the sport.
The strongest leader in decades in a country notorious for political instability, Correa bristles at claims he is taking Ecuador down an autocratic route. "We are here to change our Ecuador in peace and democracy," he said.
Ecuadoreans appeared to vote en masse, especially since those who did not vote faced a fine of about USD 25. Local TV showed voters walking through muddy roads in the Amazon area, wearing indigenous outfits in an Andean province and lining up in front of polling stations in the Galapagos Islands.
The charismatic and voluble Correa forms part of a regional alliance of leftist Latin American presidents that includes Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
They are fervent critics of US "imperialism" and have sought to boost state revenues from their country`s energy resources to spend on social projects.