Ecuador – Former President Correa Cries Coup as Current President Moreno Convokes Plebiscite on Re-Election Ban

The falling out between Rafael Correa and Lenin Moreno, Ecuador’s past and current presidents respectively, has reached the level of a full-scale civil war that threatens to split the country’s governing party in a conflict over what many are calling the ‘de-Correa-ification’ of Ecuador.

The dominant characterisation of this schism has Moreno making a ‘shift to the right’ away from Correa’s ‘leftist’ policies. For example, in the view of the Financial Times Moreno has begun dismantling Correa’s “populist left-wing legacy” and forging relations with the business community. Meanwhile Correa accuses Moreno of “betrayal,” claiming that he is of the “centre-right” and has “no convictions”.

However, further analysis reveals that the issues at the heart of this extraordinary internecine conflict – which the BBC dubbed “Ecuador’s Game of Thrones” – relate to personality and political style rather than ideology. To be specific, they relate to Correa’s personality and political style.

As previously reported here, Lenin Moreno was elected in April of last year by the narrowest of margins, and under somewhat questionable conditions. Having served as Vice-President to Correa –who stepped down as President after a decade in power – many assumed that Moreno would be little more than a puppet. Some even compared the situation to that which existed in Russia between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin between 2008 and 2012.

No one is talking about that any more. Instead a far more likely scenario is the division of governing party Alianza PAIS into pro- and anti-Correa factions.

The situation has been brought to a head by a number of dramatic, headline-grabbing events. First came the preventative detention and prosecution of Moreno’s Vice-President (successor to Moreno as Correa’s Vice-President) Jorge Glas on corruption charges relating to the Odebrecht scandal. Last month Glas was jailed for six years. He was subsequently removed from the post and replaced by Maria Alejandra Vicuña. Impeachment proceedings have been instituted against Glas.

Moreno has also criticised the economic situation he inherited, enacted cuts to public spending, ordered an audit of the legality of Ecuador’s debt, and is seeking to bring its extension of asylum to Julian Assange to an end. Most significantly of all, Moreno has convoked a plebiscite for February 4th which proposes a range of reforms, among them a ban on presidential re-election[i]. This proposal would reverse the amendment abolishing term limits introduced by Correa in 2015, and bar the former president from running again.

Correa and his allies have reacted with increasing fury to these unfolding events, labelling Moreno a “traitor” and accusing him of destroying the legacy of the ‘Citizens’ Revolution’. Correa has characterised Moreno’s cuts as an “austerity package,” and criticised his meetings with business elites and the political right.

As previously reported here, in November pro-Correa factions moved to oust Moreno as president of Alianza PAIS. Moreno was able to have the decision overturned by the National Electoral Council (CNE), however, and the issue has been referred to the Contentious Electoral Tribunal (TCE) for a ruling. As a result, a split appears increasingly likely, with Correa now openly considering forming a rival party.

The most strident criticism of Moreno has focussed on the methods used to convoke the plebiscite. Rather than submit the proposed questions to the Constitutional Court for clarification, Moreno issued an executive decree instructing the CNE to proceed to put the selected questions to the electorate. Moreno justified the decree on procedural grounds, but pro-Correa figures have rejected that explanation. Former Chancellor Ricardo Patiño has labelled the plebiscite “unconstitutional,” while in an open letter of resignation, Ecuador’s UN Ambassador Guillaume Long denounced Moreno’s “dangerous authoritarianism” and “false ecumenism”.

Naturally the strongest criticism has come from Correa, who described the move as “treason” and an attempt at a “coup d’etat.” On January 5th Correa flew back to Ecuador from his home in Belgium to lead the ‘No’ campaign. As a result, Ecuador faces the paradoxical situation where, in the words of Pablo Ospina of the Simon Bolivar Andean University, “the only political movement opposed to the plebiscite is part of the party of the president who convoked it”[ii].

Yet Correa appears to be losing this game of political chess. In terms of support from members of the parliamentary party, Moreno has secured almost twice as many endorsements. Furthermore, according opinion polls Correa’s approval ratings – a consistent source of strength during his time as president – have plummeted to below 30% over the past year, during which time Moreno’s have risen to over 70%. Other polls point to public support for the ban on presidential re-election in the plebiscite.

A recent study of the decade-long Correa regime offers insight into why Moreno looks to be on a path to defeating his former leader[iii]. Utilising the concept of “competitive authoritarianism” developed by Levitsky and Way[iv], Sanchez-Sibony concludes that Correa slanted the electoral playing field and utilised state control of the economy as a substitute for party organisation.

This analysis chimes with that of Ospina, who notes that Correa’s power was based on a combination of charisma and state control. Moreno may lack charisma, but it appears that in contemporary Ecuador, control of the state apparatus is more important. That Moreno appears to be successfully using Correa’s own tools against him is an irony that has not been lost on the former president’s critics.

In particular, Ospina points to Moreno’s strategic approach to opponents on both the left and the right, offering to each some but not all of what they demand[v]. For example, while Moreno did reduce public spending, the move was described as “moderate” by business associations who continue to push the president for deeper cuts. In Moreno’s cabinet, portfolios relating to the productive economy have gone to those with business links, while those with oversight of social policy have been entrusted to left-wing intellectuals.

This method can also be observed in the formation of the questions proposed for the plebiscite. To those on the right, Moreno has offered the possibility of eliminating Correa’s Capital Gains Tax, but has refused to amend the controversial Communications Law. For indigenous movements and environmentalists there is the prospect of restrictions on mining in protected areas, but not the total prohibition sought.

All of which brings the discussion back, inevitably, to Correa. Talk of Moreno ‘betraying’ the Citizens’ Revolution overlooks the fact that Correa himself had moved the project far from its origins during his ten-year reign. Numerous policy switches took place over that time[vi], including the signing of a free trade deal with the European Union and renewed borrowing from the IMF. In terms of the governing coalition, left-wing intellectuals and social movements had long-since been replaced by statist technocrats, ‘modern’ business people, and state contractors.

Several commentators have pointed out that Moreno is not fundamentally altering the economic model of the Correa years, which remains highly dependent on primary commodities, agribusiness, and borrowing. The real source of the conflict here is political.

It is questionable whether Moreno can hold together his ‘rainbow coalition’ of left and right in the long run. In constitution it is redolent of the first cabinet of former President Lucio Gutiérrez, which lasted all of six months before it fell apart under the weight of its internal contradictions[vii].

But for now Ecuador’s left and right are united behind Moreno’s attempt to achieve the ‘de-Correa-ification’ of Ecuadorian politics. Upon that point there appears to be widespread agreement, not only among social and political actors, but in the general public also. Correa may continue to dominate the headlines in Ecuador, but it looks increasingly as though his period of electoral dominance may be drawing to a close.

Notes

[i] The other questions include: The removal of political rights for those guilty of corruption; the election of new members of the Civic Participation Council; the repeal of the Capital Gains Tax Law; the extension of the ‘intangible zone’ in Yasuni National Park; restrictions on mining in protected areas; enhanced protections for children.

[ii] Pablo Ospina, 2017. Informe de Coyuntura: Traición e Infidelidad, los Dioses También Lloran. CEP Informe de Coyuntura, Diciembre. Available at: http://www.cepecuador.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=15&Itemid=114.

[iii] Omar Sanchez-Sibony, 2017. Classifying Ecuador’s Regime under Correa: A Procedural Approach. Journal of Politics in Latin America, Vol. 9(3), pp. 121-140.

[iv] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

[v] Ospina, 2017.

[vi] Sanchez-Sibony, 2017.

[vii] César Montúfar, 2008. ‘El Populismo Intermitente de Lucio Gutiérrez,’ in Carlos de la Torre and Enrique Peruzzotti (eds.), El Retorno del Pueblo: Populismo y Nuevas Democracias en América Latina. Quito: FLACSO Ecuador.

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