Since 1860, Ecuador has had 17 different constitutions. The most recent constitution came into force in August 1998. The previous constitution was approved on 10 August 1979, in preparation for a return from military to civilian rule. That document was amended in 1984 and again in 1996, but many Ecuadorians believed their needs were not reflected by that document. In 1998, a 70-member elected National Constituent Assembly rewrote the constitution. Unprecedented rights granted to native populations and blacks were among key reforms. The constitution gave them equal rights, additional rights that guaranteed their lands, protected their culture and customs. Native peoples were allowed to use their own languages and teach their children in their native languages at schools, although Spanish remained the official language of the nation. The constitution also emphasized unity in diversity. Eradicating poverty was a key component written into the new constitution, which also prohibits granting amnesty to human rights violators. The constitution also prohibits the death penalty.
The unicameral Chamber of Representatives (or Congress) consists of 100 members chosen for five-year terms by proportional representation from each of the country's 22 provinces. The chamber meets in full session for two months a year, leaving the rest of its business to four permanent committees. The president and vice president are elected for a four-year term, and are not allowed to seek consecutive terms. As is traditional in Ecuador, the president initiates the budget and appoints the cabinet, as well as provincial governors, many administrative employees, and diplomatic representatives. Under the 1998 constitutional reforms, the chamber may no longer remove cabinet ministers (it forced the finance minister out of office late in 1986, and ousted the president of Ecuador in February 1997). The president also controls the armed forces and can declare a state of siege. Voting is compulsory for literate people aged 18 to 65, and optional for illiterates.