QUITO Ecuadoreans were to vote on Saturday over a reform package President Rafael Correa's rivals say would give the leftist leader too much power over courts and media critics in the South American OPEC member nation.
Big spending on schools, roads and hospitals have underpinned Correa's popularity among the poor and lower middle classes, but rivals accuse him of having an authoritarian streak and using public votes to amass power.
Polls show about 55-60 percent of voters are in favor of the referendum's 10 questions, which range from the revamping of the judiciary to a ban on bullfighting. But stronger campaigning by Correa's rivals in the past few days has boosted the 'No' campaign, leaving them about 10 points behind.
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 that police can better fight crime, a huge concern in the Andean country of 14 million people.
"Some are saying this is a totalitarian state ... in which things are done by force. Here we're doing it with a (public) vote, the most democratic way there is," Correa said.
Opposition leaders including the president's brother Fabricio Correa and Jaime Nebot, mayor of the port city of Guayaquil, say Correa is using the reforms as a power-grab in the resource-rich country.
"I think he's tired of the constitution ... He wants more power to forge ahead with controversial projects like developing an open-pit mining industry," Alberto Acosta, a former presidential aide turned Correa critic, told Reuters.
Correa aims to attract mining investors in a bid to diversify the economy from dependence on oil exports and money sent home by Ecuadoreans working abroad. But some communities oppose the projects because of environmental concerns.
DAVID VERSUS GOLIATH
Polls show most voters do not fully understand the complex referendum. For many, it is simply a vote of confidence in the 48-year-old leader who has ruled since 2007 and seen his popularity soar past the 50 percent mark again after escaping a police uprising last year in a shootout.
"Correa will probably treat his likely victory as a fresh mandate, creating an environment in which he can potentially further concentrate power in the hands of the executive," the political risk consultant firm Eurasia Group said in a report.
A sweeping Correa victory against a fractured opposition could pave the way for his re-election in 2013, analysts say.
"We feel like David fighting Goliath," Acosta said.
Correa's antagonistic stance toward media has fueled fears two reforms aimed at limiting media ownership and holding journalists "responsible" for their stories would let him silence criticism of his policies.
The charismatic and voluble Correa is part of an alliance of leftist Latin American presidents that also includes Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
They are fervent critics of U.S. "imperialism" and have sought to boost state revenues from their country's energy resources which they spend in social projects.
(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Mohammad Zargham)