A recount last week officially confirmed the victory of the government candidate, Lenín Moreno, in the final round of Ecuador’s election earlier this month. Moreno’s victory might seem like a marker of continuity, especially given that he served as vice-president from 2007 to 2013. The result should instead be interpreted as a considerable shift in Ecuadorean politics. In the domestic arena, Moreno is likely to adopt a more conciliatory and consensual approach than his predecessor, Rafael Correa. His victory also indicates how entrenched a particular strand of the populist Latin America left remains, even as increasing domestic problems are causing a turn inwards and away from previously strong displays of solidarity.
A fraught political history
Before Rafael Correa’s 2006 election, Ecuador had seven presidents in ten years, three of whom were forced out of office. For many Anglo-American political commentators, this small banana-exporting Andean nation was the classic ‘Banana Republic’. As with many other Latin American countries, from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, Washington Consensus-style economic and social discourses prevailed. The nation stumbled from crisis to crisis. The most scarring of these was the 1999 financial crisis: between summer 1998 and autumn 1999, half of all Ecuadorian domestic private banks failed. The State’s rushed (and only partially successful) attempt to save people’s deposits, supported by rapid monetary expansion, led to a collapse of the Ecuadorean peso and, eventually, to dollarisation.
Rafael Correa rose to power on the promise of delivering a socialism fit for the 21st century. His actions in government were pitched as a movement against the evils of neoliberalism. Money was pumped into public projects, including roads, hospitals and schools. Whilst detractors accused him of over-spending, he delivered some impressive results, such as the reduction of extreme levels of poverty by 47 per cent. Correa did not abandon the dollarisation policy, but he and Alianza País did enact significant changes, ranging from a new constitution to the removal of the US military’s base in Manta.
Anti-US sentiment has been a trope of Latin American populism since at least the times of Bolívar. Correa’s 2009 expulsion of two US diplomats, who were charged with meddling in internal affairs, should be seen in this vein. Granting asylum to Julian Assange should also be seen in light of such anti-US feelings, especially given that Correa was hardly a champion of press freedom. His government’s tightening of the opposition press’s freedom has drawn considerable domestic and international criticism. Human Rights Watch have also been particularly critical of the government’s treatment of protestors.
Throughout his time in office, Correa faced criticism from both indigenous movements on the left, and urban protest movements on the right. This criticism reached a flashpoint during the summer of 2015, amidst increasing suspicions that he would seek a third term. Indigenous protests centred on both local issues (such as rural and urban services provisions) and broader ones (such as the extraction of natural resources), and culminated in the arrest of several prominent indigenous leaders. Meanwhile, 350,000 people took to the streets of the port city of Guayaquil to demonstrate against plans to impose punitive additional taxes on inheritances and gains from property transactions.
It was subsequently announced that Correa would not seek a fourth term: whilst the constitution was changed in December 2015 to allow for unlimited presidential terms, this change was only ratified after the recent election. A different candidate thus had to stand for the government.
The 2017 Election
Lenín Moreno beat former banker Guillermo Lasso in the election’s second round by a margin of 2.3 per cent. After the recent publication of the results of an opposition-requested recount, Moreno, a former UN envoy on Disability and Accessibility, will soon become the world’s only paraplegic head of state – he was shot in a 1998 robbery. The result was hotly contested in Ecuador. After the second round, some polling data placed Lasso in the lead. Several political analysts had also predicted that, with the support of Cynthia Viteri, who had placed third in the first-round, and riding the wave of rising anti-Correa sentiment, Lasso might take victory.
In the final count before the vote, this prediction looked to be unfounded, since local pollster Cedatos registered voter intention for Moreno at 52.4 percent, compared to Lasso’s 47.6 percent. Unexpectedly though, the first exit poll to be released gave Lasso a six point victory. However, the celebrations of Lasso supporters on the streets of Guayaquil and Quito turned to protest when it was announced that the exit poll was in fact incorrect.
Last Wednesday a partial recount confirmed Moreno’s victory. The opposition continues to contest this and there are signs of a backlash – the state media watchdog has fined seven media companies for failing to cover Lasso’s alleged off-shore dealings. Some commentators, in the run up to recount, cited Correa’s control of vote counting institutions, but both the U.S. State Department and the Organization of American States have more or less dismissed suggestions of fraud.
A Lasso victory would not have been inconceivable, but his defeat comes as no surprise. Much of Lasso’s support was based more on anti-Correa feeling than on pro-Lasso enthusiasm. Despite his protests to the contrary, Lasso was successfully painted as an elitist who would slash welfare policies. His supporters have cited the appearance on city buses of fake Lasso ads, in which he ‘promised’ to privatise health care. The fact that a second round of voting was required was in itself therefore a significant achievement for Lasso.
Ecuador’s new roads are dotted with vast, garish billboards which proclaim that Correa’s revolución ciudadana esta en obra. How will the so-called citizen’s revolution continue under Moreno? It is likely that the revolution will take on a Moreno-esque guise. His plans to create homes for all under his flagship programme Todo una Vida provide an indication of his vision for the future.
Finding the money for such plans will be difficult. Ecuador’s economy has suffered severely from drops in oil prices and the effects of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake last year. The IMF projects a 2.7 per cent contraction of Ecuador’s economy in 2017, and while government statistics cite a low level of unemployment, underemployment is rife.
Moreno faces the challenges of the Trump-presidency in the US, a reduced majority of 74/137 seats in the unicameral Asemblea Nacional, and continued urban opposition in Ecuador’s two main cities – Guayaquil and Quito. He lost both cities in the election, and both have their own (potentially rival) political leadership under mayors Jaime Nebot and Mauricio Rodas respectively.
Some commentators suggest that Moreno’s correísta Vice-President Jorge Glas and Correa (despite his planned move to Belgium) will be Moreno’s puppet masters, thus creating a feeling of continuity. However, given the changed circumstances, it is unlikely that Moreno will adopt the pugnacious style of his predecessor, and this will be a considerable change after ten years of highly polarising politics.
Wider repercussions for the Latin American left
Commenting on the recent rise of Latin America’s ‘pink tide’ in the summer of 2006, Mexican academic and ex-foreign minister Jorge Castañeda wrote that:
“there is not one Latin American left today; there are two. One is modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist, and it springs, paradoxically, from the hard-core left of the past. The other, born of the great tradition of Latin American populism, is nationalist, strident, and close-minded.”
The first strand encompassed the then governments of Brazil, Peru and Uruguay. The second included the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador and Hugo Chávez (and now Nicolás Maduro) in Venezuela. In a signal of the apparent unity of the Latin American populist left, both Morales and Chávez were present at Correa’s 2007 swearing-in ceremony. Yet both then, and increasingly now, there were fundamental differences between the three men’s visions of 21st century socialism. Moreover, Latin America’s populist tradition is far too broad for Correa or Moreno to have sprung from it in any unproblematic sense.
However, any remaining unity between these three populisms is likely to fragment further in the future, especially in the light of the contrasts which can already be highlighted. For example, bilingual Correa, with a Belgian wife and an American PhD, was far more worldly and technocratic than Chavez, Maduro, Morales, or even Moreno. Chavez had a military background and a history of organising for revolution. Morales, meanwhile, was Bolivia’s first indigenous leader and the leader of the country’s coca growers’ union – a position he remained in after his election. Under Morales, Bolivia officially became a plurinational state, in an acknowledgement of the importance of indigenous movements to his politics. Correa, by contrast, faced increasingly antagonistic relationships with popular indigenous movements in Ecuador.
In addition, Venezuela is held up by many Ecuadoreans as a cautionary tale of ‘Dictadura’, a view reinforced by recent news that Maduro is seeking to weaken the country’s court and ban opposition leaders from standing in the next election. In Bolivia meanwhile, Morales has vowed to stand for a fourth term despite recently losing a referendum on the question. Currently recovering from a throat surgery in Cuba, it is likely that upon return he, like Maduro, will be increasingly focused on domestic problems.
Just over a decade on from the rise of Latin America’s pink tide, it is too easy to tell a simple narrative of decline. There have indeed been definite shifts to the right across the continent, from Argentina to Peru. Yet the populist strand of the pink wave which Casteñada identified remains entrenched even as they face rising crises. For now, at least, their story is one of remarkable durability, even as their previous unity appears to fragment with their inwards turn.