This is a guest post by Chris O’Connell, PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University
Following one of the most low-key campaigns in recent memory, Ecuador’s presidential election exploded into the controversy, protest, and rumours of fraud and military intervention. Following three days of chaos and contradiction, the final outcome is a run-off vote between front-runners Lenin Moreno of the government party Alianza PAIS (AP), and Guillermo Lasso of the right-wing CREO movement. While this outcome was widely predicted, the manner in which it played out has been dramatic, and points to problems for the government.
While the lack of both accuracy and impartiality has been a prominent feature of opinion polling throughout the election campaign, all the major pollsters were agreed that Moreno would obtain the most votes in the first round. The inevitability of a Moreno ‘win’ was sealed when the two major right-wing opposition parties – CREO and the Social Christian Party (PSC) – failed to agree on a shared candidate. With the PSC’s Cynthia Viteri also on the ballot, the right-wing vote was split.
The important question was therefore not whether Moreno would win, but by how much. While no polls gave Moreno more than fifty per cent, under Ecuador’s electoral rules a run-off can be avoided if a candidate gains forty per cent and exceeds the vote share of the runner-up by at least ten per cent. This rule became the focus of a battle that was much more intense than the campaign which preceded it.
With ninety-eight per cent of votes counted, figures released by the National Electoral Council (CNE) give Lasso 28.4% of the votes, and Moreno 39.3%. With votes slow to come in from Ecuadorian emigrants abroad, along with some of the country’s remote districts, CNE head Juan Pablo Pozo had announced on Monday that it would take three days to finalise the count, and appealed for calm.
Those appeals fell on deaf ears, however. Instead supporters of Lasso, led by his running-mate Andres Paez, occupied the space outside the offices of the CNE on election night. There they remained, ensuring that all eyes were on an institution believed by the opposition to be under government control. Belatedly groups of AP supporters followed suit, leading to a tense stand-off on the streets of capital city Quito. Meanwhile similar ‘electoral vigils’ sprang up outside CNE branches in major cities like Guayaquil and Cuenca.
Lasso, a former banker who was part of the truncated government of Lucio Gutierrez, continued pressuring the CNE, talking openly of electoral fraud and demanding the finalisation of the count. Unsurprisingly in such a febrile atmosphere, rumours flew of dumped ballot boxes and even military intervention – forcing the military high command to issue a statement denying “false rumours” and pledging to protect the electoral process.
Moreno remained outwardly calm, eventually accepting the need for a run-off having initially celebrated an outright victory. Secretly, however, he and others at AP must be extremely frustrated at missing out on what could well be their best chance of success by less than one per cent of the vote. Rumours of the absolute dominance of AP over Ecuador’s institutions would appear to have been exaggerated.
The results must be considered in the light of the regional political situation. Following the changes of president in both Argentina and Brazil – albeit the latter by way of a dubious impeachment process – questions are being asked as whether the ‘pink tide’ that swept South America during the past decade is going out. These results – along with setbacks for left-wing governments in Venezuela and Bolivia – has seen increasing attention paid to the apparent return of the right in Latin America[i].
In that context, the Ecuadorian elections represent the latest test of the durability of the left in South America. In particular, the 2017 presidential vote is viewed as an indicator of the sustainability of the so-called ‘Citizens’ Revolution’ driven by AP and its leader, President Rafael Correa, who is stepping down after a decade in office. This year’s slate of candidates is the first to not feature Correa in fifteen years.
As David Doyle has written about previously in this blog, AP used its super-majority in the national assembly to amend the constitution to allow for unlimited re-election. Nevertheless, in the face of opinion polls indicating overwhelming public opposition and a faltering economy, Correa opted against putting himself forward as a candidate.
Instead the AP candidate would be Lenin Moreno, Correa’s vice-president during his first six years in power. According to some accounts Correa’s preferred candidate was current vice-president Jorge Glas, but polling gave him little chance of victory. The mantle thus fell to Moreno, with Glas reprising his role as running-mate. Moreno is a popular if diffident figure who is most renowned for his work as a disability campaigner, having been confined to a wheelchair since being shot in an attempted robbery.
Nevertheless, the problems facing the governing party were not limited to the absence of Correa from the ballot paper. The most commonly cited issues are the slowdown in the economy since oil prices began to fall in 2014, and a series of corruption controversies. While not confined to the ruling party, these allegations have served to undermine the public legitimacy that has provided the foundations for its decade-long rule.
In spite of the promise of Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution to institute a regime of ‘Sumak kawsay’ or ‘good living’, the economy remains heavily dependent on crude exports. Further adding to Ecuador’s economic difficulties has been the strengthening of the US dollar[ii], which has pushed up the price of Ecuador’s exports. In spite of these serious drawbacks the economy has contracted but has not entered recession, and doomsday scenarios have thus far failed to materialise.
For some this is evidence of the success of the economic management of governing party. It is certainly the case the under Correa has collected more taxes than previous regimes. However many suspect that the government’s high levels of public spending are supported mainly by large-scale borrowing from China. In return for credit, it is alleged that the government has given China first option on its crude output for years to come. The government’s cancellation in 2013 of its innovative Yasuni-ITT initiative may have been designed to placate Chinese interests, but the move cost AP in terms of popularity among the urban middle-classes[iii].
Oil and public spending have also been at the centre of a series of corruption scandals that have weakened the government further. The massive Odebrecht bribery scandal has implicated legions of politicians across the region. In the case of Ecuador, the scandal has lent credence to widely held suspicions about overpayments on public infrastructure contracts – suspicions that are only strengthened by government reticence to investigate the matter.
Furthermore, a corruption case involving state oil company Petroecuador has tarnished political actors from across the ideological spectrum. Specific allegations made by former Petroecuador head Carlos Pareja against Glas, however, have been particularly damaging to the government.
In what could be considered a classic AP move, the government sought to outflank its opponents on this very issue by including a referendum on tax havens on the ballot paper. The referendum proposed a prohibition on public servants holding assets or capital in tax havens. The measure forced opponents to take a position on the issue[iv], while simultaneously presenting the government as progressive. The effect of such moves has diminished over time, however, as highlighted by the fact that the proposal was carried by an underwhelming fifty-five per cent.
Perhaps of most concern to AP amid the fallout from this election is the way in which its right-wing opponents have taken effective control of street politics. When Correa rose to power ten years ago, it was on the back of a sustained period of mobilisation by social actors. Correa in turn harnessed this power to force through a plebiscite on the convening of a constituent assembly against fierce opposition[v].
Following the ratification of a new constitution in 2008, however, the government’s attitude to mobilisation altered dramatically. As a number of scholars have noted, the government introduced a series of measures designed to regulate civil society and to criminalise protest[vi]. The strategy seemed to revolve around controlling the social movements through state power while dominating the right-wing opposition electorally.
The first signs that this strategy might be failing came in July 2015, when government proposals to introduce a capital gains tax encountered strident opposition. The protests outside the AP headquarters by members of the middle and upper-middle classes made the government appear vulnerable for the first time. The proposed measures were withdrawn, but it would appear that AP learned little from the incident.
The protest at the CNE – which included a mix of businesspeople linked to chambers of commerce, PSC and CREO supporters, and members of the middle class – is the kind of manoeuvre traditionally associated with social movements and the left. As Ecuadorian sociologist Carlos de la Torre has outlined, the occupation of public spaces has long been fundamental to ‘populist’ visions of democracy in Ecuador[vii]. To see that tactic utilised by the right so effectively that Correa was reduced to tweeting impotently about electoral fraud indicates a tidal shift in Ecuadorian politics.
That is not to say that AP is spent as a political force in Ecuador, far from it. Along with Moreno’s ‘victory’, AP is also projected to hold a majority in the national assembly. But this is a party that has governed without political compromise, and in doing so has made few friends. The right has already coalesced around Lasso, with the PSC putting aside misgivings to pledge its support to the former banker. This combined vote share totals roughly forty-six per cent.
Under normal circumstances Moreno would command a similar vote share by harnessing the seven per cent that went to Democratic Left candidate Paco Moncayo. But these are not normal circumstances, and the strong ‘anti-correismo’ current is not confined to the right. Moncayo has thus far refused to endorse either candidate, while members of the traditionally leftist Pachakutik party have publicly refused to back Moreno. Under such circumstances, AP faces a stiff challenge to win the additional support it requires from an electorate in which opinion polls indicate that seventy per cent of voters favour “significant change”.
[i] For more on this, see: Juan Pablo Luna and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (eds.), 2014. The Resilience of the Latin American Right. John Hopkins University Press; Barry Cannon, 2016. The Right in Latin America, Routledge.
[ii] Following a huge financial crisis in 1999, Ecuador adopted the US dollar as its currency in 2000.
[iii] Catherine Conaghan, 2016. “Ecuador under Correa,” Journal of Democracy Vol. 27(3).
[iv] Lasso, a former banker, campaigned against the measure on grounds of personal freedom.
[v] See Eduardo Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America. Cambridge University Press.
[vi] For more, see: Carlos de la Torre and Andrés Ortiz Lemos, 2015. “Populist Polarisation and the Slow Death of Democracy in Ecuador.” Democratization Vol. 23(2); Catherine Conaghan, 2015. “Surveil and Sanction: The Return of the State and Societal Regulation in Ecuador.” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies Vol. 98.
[vii] Carlos de la Torre, 2015. De Velasco a Correa: Insurrecciones, populismos y elecciones en Ecuador, 1944-2013. Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar/Corporación Editora Nacional.