The results of Sunday’s mid-term elections indicate that Ecuador may be returning to the days of political fragmentation and instability, raising issues for the country’s democracy.
It was not supposed to be like this. A little over a year ago President Moreno received overwhelming support for his plebiscite, was riding high in the polls, and heading a largely unified political sector. Yet, as outlined previously in this blog, the point of unity was a shared opposition to former president Rafael Correa. As predicted, this proved a less-than-satisfactory basis for future governance.
Instead Ecuador’s economic and political future has begun to resemble its past. Moreno’s beleaguered administration bears an increasing resemblance to the chaotic governments that made Ecuador a byword for instability during the 1990s and early 2000s[i].
Beset by economic and political problems, Moreno’s approval rating has slumped to 30%; he has lost a second vice-president to a corruption scandal; and ruling party Alianza PAIS has been broken into “100 pieces”. The month of March witnessed the return of the “demonised” IMF to prop up the country’s ailing economy, evoking memories of former crises[ii].
Now the country’s politics is following a similar path. After a decade of near-hegemony by Alianza PAIS, Sunday’s elections for prefects, mayors, and councillors saw the resumption of what Simon Pachano dubbed the “provincialisation of representation”[iii]. The best that Moreno can say after failing to run candidates in the mid-terms is that no other party or movement has emerged obviously strengthened.
An election that saw 11,069 posts contested by over 84,000 candidates from among seven political parties, nine national movements and 54 provincial movements, has left Ecuadorian politics atomised. Localised, proto-populist movements have helped to elect mayors in four of the country’s five major cities, including the capital Quito.
The results have implications for some established political players. Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution Movement failed to make any headway, although this can be largely attributed to the government prohibiting them from running candidates. Meanwhile the overwhelming ratification of Cynthia Viteri as mayor of Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, may point to a return from the political wilderness of the conservative Social Christian Party.
But the overall picture is one of a “political vacuum” that has not been filled by any political force, mainly due to squabbling and division. This may be good news for Moreno in terms of political survival.
Taking a broader view, however, the results bode ill for Ecuador’s democracy and economy. Having won elections as Correa’s former vice-president, Moreno has steadily moved away from his predecessor’s geopolitical and economic positions. Late last year Moreno introduced an ‘paquetazo’ of austerity measures, including layoffs in the public sector, and cuts to state subsidies. These moves paved the way for the formal approval of a $4.2 billion line of credit from the IMF, a highly controversial move.
Moreno has sought to blame the poor economic circumstances that he inherited from Correa. There is no doubt that levels of public debt were understated by Correa, and issues with salary payments for public sector workers pre-date the current president. But there is some evidence to suggest that Moreno is now overstating debt, perhaps to justify more cuts. Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian economy is continuing to contract.
While it is valid to argue that Moreno has largely continued the economic policies of Correa’s latter years – the former president reached an accord with the IMF for interim credit in 2016 –Moreno has significantly “accelerated” this process. As prior research shows, this kind of ‘switch’ can have a strongly negative impact on public faith in democracy[iv]. Recent survey data from Latinobarometro revealed that almost 20% of the public would favour an authoritarian government, providing some support for this thesis.
Accordingly, Moreno has been branded a “traitor” not only by Correa, but by many on the left. Justifying his break with the past by painting the Correa administration as corrupt, Moreno has overseen the conviction of his former vice-president and Correa loyalist Jorge Glas on corruption charges, and has sought Correa’s extradition from Belgium.
But attempts to portray himself as the new broom of Ecuadorian politics have failed. Moreno’s second vice-president, María Alejandra Vicuña, was forced to resign following a corruption scandal, while rumours of offshore accounts and secret payments continue to swirl around the president. At a time when Ecuador is in dire need of political leadership, its president enjoys little credibility.
Instead of national unity, the mid-term results indicate a return to the days of high electoral volatility and moveable allegiances – referred to as “swapping jerseys” in Ecuador. Reduced policy coherence and enhanced instability appear the likely outcomes.
Geopolitically, Moreno has re-aligned Ecuador with the US, supporting Juan Guaido in Venezuela, and pulling out of the Unasur regional body. Economically, Moreno’s plan involves a combination of IMF-mandated cuts to the public sector, renewed privatisation, and a continuation of the extractivism that characterised the Correa era.
Yet the mid-term results point to issues for the president in this area also, with the election of indigenous anti-mining activist Yaku Perez Guartambel as Prefect of mineral-rich Azuay, and the rejection of the Quimsacocha mining project in a local popular plebiscite. Along with the protests that met Moreno’s austerity measures, these events may herald the return to political prominence of Ecuador’s social movements, so weakened under Correa[v]. Were that to occur, the echoes of the past would be undeniable.
[i]Pérez-Liñán, A. (2007), Presidential impeachment and the new political instability in Latin America. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
[ii]Aguirre, M. (2019), ‘Informe de Coyuntura: El Juego del Ahorcado’, CEP Informe de Coyuntura, Enero. Available at: http://www.cepecuador.org/images/PDFs/coyuntura_enero_2019_opt.pdf.
[iii]Pachano, S. (2006), ‘Ecuador: The provincialization of representation’, in S, Mainwaring, A.M. Bejarano, and E. Pizarro Leongómez (eds.), The Crisis of Democratic Representation in the Andes. Stanford, Stanford University Press.
[iv]Stokes, S. C. (2001). Mandates and democracy: Neoliberalism by surprise in Latin America. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press; Johnson, G. B., & Ryu, S. R. (2010), ‘Repudiating or rewarding neoliberalism? How broken campaign promises condition economic voting in Latin America’, Latin American Politics and Society, 52(4), pp. 1-24.
[v]Becker, M. (2013), ‘The stormy relations between Rafael Correa and social movements in Ecuador’, Latin American Perspectives, 40(3),pp. 43-62.