Ecuador – Term Limits Re-introduced, but Questions Remain over Moreno Presidency

In Ecuador President Lenin Moreno has won a resounding victory against his predecessor, Rafael Correa, in a wide-ranging plebiscite. Nevertheless, questions remain over the nature and direction of the new government. More specifically, while the approval of a proposal to re-introduce presidential term limits has been hailed in some circles as bucking the region’s “authoritarian trend,” the jury remains out on Ecuador’s future democratic path.

What can be said with certainty at this stage is that for the first time in over a decade, former president Rafael Correa has come out on the losing side in a public vote. As noted previously in this blog, opposition to the plebiscite consisted almost exclusively of Correa and his supporters, all of whom until very recently were members of the governing party, Alianza PAIS. Ranged against them were all of the major political and social actors in the country united – it appears – by a common desire to achieve the ‘de-Correa-ification’ of Ecuadorian politics.

Making predictions about Ecuadorian politics is extremely risky, given the partisan nature of opinion polling. However, as one commentator noted, “for once” the opinion polls correctly predicted the outcome of the plebiscite. The ‘Yes’ vote achieved an overall majority of almost 2:1 across the seven questions[i] put to the electorate, by margins ranging between 26 and 47 per cent, figures that also line up with Moreno’s overall approval ratings.

In spite of the size of the winning margin for the government – only on three previous occasions in the past forty years has a plebiscite been carried by a wider margin[ii] – it could not be said to have succeeded entirely in vanquishing Correa. The former president was quick to hail what he described as a “great triumph” for his newly formed Movement of the Citizens’ Revolution, claiming that “no other single movement obtained 36% of the vote”.

While this claim smacks somewhat of desperation – Ospina estimates the true size of Correa’s core constituency at closer to 22%[iii] – it contains enough truth to trouble Moreno. Taking into account that the president won around 39% of the votes in the first round of voting in last year’s presidential election – and that all opposition parties campaigned for a ‘Yes’ – one analyst estimates that Moreno succeeded in winning over a mere 8-11% of government supporters.

These figures raise the question of how Moreno will govern from this point onward, and in particular how he will consolidate his hold on power. In this context, the results of the plebiscite are extremely interesting.

Most international attention has focussed on the approval of Question 2, which effectively restores presidential term limits. This move is significant in terms of halting a drift toward indefinite re-election, particularly in light of recent events in Bolivia. It must be remembered, however, that the result returns Ecuador to the position set out in its 2008 Constitution, which allows for one instance of re-election to the same post. In effect the plebiscite has therefore repealed the amendment pushed through by Correa in 2015 via the National Assembly (not a referendum), a process which met with vigorous opposition in the streets.

As a result, the plebiscite has undone one of the most unpopular measures of the Correa government, such that many believe it was significant in persuading Correa not to run for election in 2017. The reform does not prevent Moreno from running for re-election as president, and even presents the possibility – however theoretical – of Correa being elected to a different post.

In fact, for many commentators the outcome of Question 3 of the plebiscite may prove to be more significant in terms of Ecuadorian democracy. That question relates to the Committee for Citizen Participation and Popular Control (CPCCS). This institution was designed to act as a form or popular or citizen check on government power, but in effect was used by Correa as one of the primary means to concentrate power.

As Ecuadorian sociologist Mario Unda notes, a list of the state functions over which the CPCCS had nominating power is illustrative, including the Attorney General, Ombudsman, Controller General, National Electoral Council and Judiciary Council. In the words of one commentator, under Correa the CPCCS became the “nucleus of state control”.

Little wonder then that many observers are waiting anxiously to see what Moreno does with this much-coveted institution. The proposal approved in the plebiscite is to re-structure the Committee, starting by replacing all of its Correa-appointed members. Moreno has pledged that in the future members will be elected by the public.

Nevertheless in the short term there will be a transition period in which Moreno will propose a shortlist of candidates to be approved by the legislature. In the view of Ospina, this gives Moreno “almost unlimited power” over the CPCCS[iv].

For a president with such a diminished core of support and relatively precarious hold on power, this process appears to present a “golden opportunity” to consolidate power. On the other hand, Moreno is coming under increasing pressure from other political players seeking to co-opt the CPCCS. What happens next will tell us a lot about Moreno and the true extent of change in Ecuador.

Notes

[i] The other questions related to: the removal of political rights for those guilty of corruption; the election of new members of the Committee for Citizen Participation and Popular Control; 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, 2018. Informe de Coyuntura: De la Consulta Popular as la edad de las presiones. CEP Informe de Coyuntura, Febrero. Available at: http://www.cepecuador.org/images/PDFs/coyuntura_ecuador_febrero_2018.pdf

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

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