Chris O’Connell – Presidential Election in Ecuador: Government Candidate Profits from Divisions

This is a guest post by Chris O’Connell, PhD candidate in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

The run-off vote for the presidency of Ecuador has been characterised by some as a crucial indicator of the political tendencies in Latin America. According to this logic, the victory of government candidate and former vice-president Lenin Moreno over banker Guillermo Lasso is proof of the continued relevance of the left in the region following a series of setbacks. Beyond this notional left/right divide, however, the results of the election highlight interesting dynamics and divisions in what is often referred to as a ‘weather-vane’ country.

Firstly, to the results. With all votes counted, the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced victory for Moreno by a mere two per cent – a difference of just over two hundred thousand votes. In the previous blog I wrote that after the first round Lasso supporters made accusations of vote tampering and fraud. As Moreno’s vote approached the forty per cent mark which would have given him outright victory at that stage, members of CREO set up ‘electoral vigils’ outside CNE offices to pressure Moreno into agreeing to a run-off.

This time around, however, such tactics have proved less successful. Several thousand CREO supporters again congregated outside election centres in Quito and Guayaquil on the night of the election, with Lasso travelling between the country’s major cities to address the crowds. While there were some skirmishes between the protesters and police, overall the government appeared better prepared this time around. Nor were the crowds as large as previously, with spirits perhaps dampened by the results of pre-election polls.

As noted previously, a feature of this election has been the politicised nature of opinion polling. This trend appeared to have been overcome in the days before the run-off when polling firm Cedatos gave Moreno a four-point lead, having one month earlier reported a similar lead for Lasso. New controversy erupted over the results of exit polls, however, with Cedatos giving Lasso a six-point lead and prompting conservative newspaper ‘El Universo’ to briefly declare him president.

As a result of the huge gap between that projection and the official results, along with a mysterious eighteen minutes during which the CNE website went offline, Lasso has alleged fraud and stated that government forces had “crossed a line”. CREO supporters have attempted to sustain a popular campaign outside CNE, but participants have numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands.

Nonetheless, the government has agreed to a partial recount of the votes from five provinces, in response to a formal appeal by CREO. While this count is taking place, however, police raided the offices of Cedatos, apparently in response to allegations by Correa that the polling firm was contracted by CREO to sow confusion with its exit poll. The recount is not expected to yield any change to the results of an election that has been ratified by the United Nations and OAS.

Thus an underwhelming election cycle, dominated by negative tactics on both sides, and featuring two largely uninspiring candidates, appears likely to end with the status quo intact.

In fact an election that should have been about Ecuador’s future – this was the first campaign not to feature outgoing President Rafael Correa in fifteen years – ended up hinging to a significant extent on visions of the country’s past. More specifically, the campaign focussed attention on differing visions of the ‘citizens’ revolution’ led by Correa, and of the preceding ‘neoliberal’ period characterised by political and economic instability.

The Lasso campaign focussed on the economic and democratic problems allegedly wrought under Correa. In particular the candidate pointed to the country’s level of indebtedness, and to the concentration of power that he compared unfavourably to Venezuela. Members of CREO also alleged that the Moreno campaign made use of state funds and public media to gain an unfair advantage.

In turn Moreno’s team, with the support of Telesur, reminded voters of Lasso’s past involvement in the banking crisis of 1999, and in several administrations during the neoliberal era. Many of the attacks were led by Correa, who dedicated much of his ‘Enlace Ciudadano’ (‘Citizens’ Link’) television show to allegations that Lasso enriched himself from the crisis and transferred funds to offshore accounts.

Moreno’s victory was certainly due in part to the identity of his rival. While opinion polls in advance of the first round of voting had shown a generalised desire for change, Lasso’s professional and political past meant that he was unable to convincingly project that image. Instead he found himself compared unfavourably to other wealthy heads of state, including Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and even Donald Trump.

Nor should the track record of the government be discounted. While the opposition alleged that achievements in the provision of healthcare, education and (in particular) infrastructure have been funded by excessive borrowing, for the moment these benefits are there to be seen. Furthermore, the Correa government has achieved significant reductions in levels of poverty and inequality, even if similar figures in neighbouring Peru would suggest a considerable ‘growth effect’[i].

The results of this election also throw light on a number of interesting internal political dynamics.

In the first place, the results highlighted the re-establishment of regional cleavages within Ecuador’s polity. The divisions between the mountainous Sierra, Amazon and coastal regions have been largely replicated in voting preferences throughout the country’s history. This provincialism led to the prioritisation of local incentives and militated against projects with national scope[ii]. This dynamic was altered with the elections for the national constituent assembly in 2007, and continued through to Correa’s first-round victory in the 2013 presidential election[iii].

The results in 2017, in both first and second rounds, reveal a return to a regionalised voting pattern. First of all, while Moreno won the popular vote, he carried a minority of voting districts (twelve to Lasso’s fifteen)[iv]. Secondly, it is striking the extent to which the government’s main base of support has shifted since its emergence in 2006 from the Sierra to the coast. Particularly notable was Lasso’s triumph in the province of Pichincha, home to capital city Quito – once considered the government’s heartland. Also of interest was Moreno’s failure to win more than a single province in the Amazon region.

There are several possible explanations for these changes, but many of them are rooted not in the campaign, but in government policy over the past decade. For example, the Amazon region has been particularly impacted by the government’s expansion of extractive activities like oil and mining, many involving Chinese companies. These projects have led to a notable rise in socio-environmental conflicts, resulting in violence and repression[v].

Agrarian policies have been a particular source of disappointment for peasant farmers in the Sierra. Despite enshrining the concept of food sovereignty in the Constitution of 2008, the trajectory of agriculture under Correa has favoured agri-business interests and exporters that are concentrated almost exclusively in the coastal region[vi]. Also of note in the coastal region is the government’s adoption of local political ‘bosses’ to bring in votes.

Nevertheless, these dynamics cannot entirely account for Moreno’s victory in the populous province of Guayas. Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil is traditionally conservative, and is further home to all of the major right-wing opposition figures, including Lasso, first-round candidates Cynthia Viteri and ‘Dalo’ Bucaram, and Mayor Jaime Nebot. Lasso’s failure there is instead explained by fractures within the right: not one of those influential figures actively campaigned for his candidacy.

While divisions on the right helped Moreno, divisions on the left between and within social movements were also beneficial. While indigenous and social movements may have paved the way for Correa’s victory in 2006 and provided crucial support through the turbulent constituent assembly process, relations between them soured as the government sought to exercise its authority over these so-called ‘corporatist’ bodies[vii].

As with previous elections, the leadership of these movements were unable to properly define a position, with most simply refusing to support Moreno, thereby creating a tacit alliance with Lasso. Meanwhile the government cultivated relations with ‘second-tier’ local organisations, resulting in around 1,200 of them declaring support for the Moreno candidacy and isolating the leadership of once-powerful national movements.

Finally, the election in Ecuador raises questions about some core analytical concepts in Latin American politics. In the first place, while Moreno’s victory is widely described as a triumph of the ‘left,’ for many the Correa project is one of the modernisation of capitalism rather than socialism[viii]. Thus rather than a right/left divide, this election could more accurately be said to have pitted the neoliberal outlook of Lasso against a ‘post-neoliberal’ government that promotes a strong state that seeks to regulate the market and redistribute income[ix].

The Moreno candidacy also raises new questions about the contested concept of ‘populism’. Correa neatly fit the bill with his personal charisma, Manichaean discourse, and redistributive economic and social policies[x]. The mild-mannered and diffident Moreno is harder to classify in those terms, however. Thus discussion has turned to the ‘populist’ nature of his policy offering, evoking an economic rather than political or discursive definition[xi].

To conclude, Moreno has promised to be a president for “all Ecuadorians”, but a review of the electoral map would appear to make that aspiration unlikely and potentially undesirable. Ten years of the ‘citizens’ revolution’ has yielded a segmented country, with both winners and losers from government policy. If Moreno has aspirations of emulating Correa’s longevity, it would appear that division would serve him far better than unity.

Notes

[i] See figures from ECLAC in its annual Social Panorama of Latin America: www.cepal.org.

[ii] For more see: Simon Pachano, 2006. ‘Ecuador: The Provincialisation of Representation,’ in Scott Mainwaring, Ana Maria Bejarano, and Eduardo Pizarro Leongomez (eds.), The Crisis of Democratic Representation in the Andes. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

[iii] Correa won a plurality in 23 of the 24 voting districts in 2013, according to the election report by Jason Eichorst and John Polga-Hecimovich, 2014. Electoral Studies Vol. 34.

[iv] Three additional districts have been added since 2013 to allow for Ecuadorians abroad to vote.

[v] A conflict over a Chinese-backed mining project in the Amazon region of the Cordillera del Condor in late 2016 led to clashes with indigenous Shuar peoples that resulted in the death of a policeman, numerous arrests, and the militarisation of the region.

[vi] For more see: Patrick Clark, 2016. “Can the State Foster Food Sovereignty? Insights from the Case of Ecuador.” Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 16(2); Isabella Giunta, 2014. “Food Sovereignty in Ecuador: Peasant Struggles and the Challenge of Institutionalisation.” Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 41(6).

[vii] See: Carlos de la Torre, 2013. “El tecnopopulismo de Rafael Correa.” Latin American Research Review 48(1); Mark Becker, 2013. “The Stormy Relations between Rafael Correa and Social Movements in Ecuador.” Latin American Perspectives 40(3).

[viii] Former government minister turned opponent Alberto Acosta is a leading advocate of this analysis.

[ix] For more see: Franklin Ramirez Gallegos, 2015. “Political Change, State Autonomy, and Post-Neoliberalism in Ecuador, 2007-2012.” Latin American Perspectives.

[x] For more see: Carlos de la Torre and Cynthia J. Arnson (eds.), 2013. Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century. Johns Hopkins University Press; George Philip and Francisco Panizza, 2011. The Triumph of Politics. John Wiley & Sons; Kurt Weyland, 2013. “The Threat from the Populist Left.” Journal of Democracy Vol. 24(3);

[xi] See: Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards, 1991. The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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