Ecuador’s Election: What does it mean?


The victory of the government candidate, Lenín Moreno, in the final round of Ecuador’s election last week might seem like a marker of continuity. There is, though, considerable reason to suppose that it is both a manifestation and signal of political change, both in Ecuador and in Latin America more generally. At home, Moreno is likely, as a result of both personality and constraint, to adopt a more conciliatory and consensual approach than his predecessor. His leadership can also be seen as a further step in the fragmentation of Latin America’s ‘pink tide’, although this was a movement which always lacked the coherence and unity many ascribed to it in the first place.

A fraught political history

As most commentators have noted, 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, the small banana exporting Andean nation was perhaps the classic Banana Republic.

From the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, Washington Consensus style economic and social discourses prevailed as the nation stumbled from crisis to crisis. The most scarring of these was the 1999 financial crisis: from midsummer 1998 to the autumn of the following year 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, engendered a collapse of the Ecuadorean peso and, eventually, to dollarisation.

Just as the political memory of the 1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’ remained a powerful tool for both Thatcherites and New Labour, the spectre of Ecuador’s financial crisis was powerfully employed against opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso, who was a member of then President Jamil Mahuad’s economic candidate.

Rafael Correa rose to power on the promise of change via twenty first century socialism. His actions in government were pitched as a movement against these evils of neoliberalism. Money was pumped into public projects, from roads to hospitals and schools. Whilst detractors accused him of spending money that was not there, there were still undeniable results – not least the reduction of extreme levels of poverty by 47 per cent.

Whilst dollarisation remains, he and Alianza País – the movement around him that coalesced into a party – have wrought significant changes, from a new constitution to the removal of the US military’s base in Manta: Washington was told that they could keep it on the condition that they let Ecuador open one in Miami.

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, charged with meddling in internal affairs – should be seen in this vein. As, indeed, should the granting of asylum to Julian Assange a move which was, as critics noted, ironic given his government’s tightening of opposition press’s freedom. Human Rights Watch have been critical of both this and 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 reached a flashpoint during the summer of 2015 when rumours that he would seek a third term abounded.

Indigenous protests on both local issues (such as rural and urban services provisions) and broader ones (such as the extraction of natural resources). Culminated in the arrest of several prominent indigenous leaders.

On the right, the Mayor of Ecuador’s largest city, Guayquil, organised Jaime Nebot: Guayquil protesta: 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. And had stickers to cars for ages.

It was announced that he would not seek a fourth term: whilst the constitution was changed in December 2015 to allow for unlimited presidential terms, these changes were only ratified after this election. A different candidate thus had to stand for the government.

The 2017 Election

Last week, Lenín Moreno beat Guillermo Lasso in the election’s second round by a margin of 2.3 per cent. Although an opposition requested recount is currently underway, it is highly likely that Moreno, a former UN envoy on Disability and Accessibility, will nonetheless become the world’s only parapelegic head of state – he was shot in a 1998 robbery.

After the second round, some polling data placed Lasso in the lead. A few political analysts, too, calculated that with the support of first round third-place candidate Cynthia Viteri behind him and riding the wive of rising anti-Correa sentiment, Lasso might just pull through.

In the final count before Sunday’s vote, local pollster Cedatos registered voter intention for Moreno at 52.4 percent with Lasso’s at 47.6 percent. The first exit poll released, though, 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 incorrect.

Though the results of the recount are yet to be announced, it is unlikely that anything will change. The more cynical cite Correa’s control of vote counting institutions, but both the U.S. State Department and the Organization of American States have more or less shrugged off suggestions of fraud and suggest that Lasso request a recount, as he now has.

A Lasso victory would not have been conceivable but his loss is hardly shocking either. Indeed, that there was a second round and his increase from the 22.68 per cent he won in 2013 is significant in itself.

Much of Lasso’s support was more anti-Correa than for pro-Lasso. As Ecuador faces a deteriorating economic situation, having  being an economic cabinet member in 1999 really does not help in this light. He was painted as an elitist who would slash welfare policies – his supporters have cited fake Lasso ads in which he promised to privatize health care popped up on city buses

Although a close ally of Correa, and his vice-president from 2007 to 2013, Moreno has more recently distanced himself from his predecessor with his less pugilacious style and cries for press freedom.

Domestic consequences

If you have driven anywhere in Ecuador over the last ten years you will have been reminded, by the vast, painfully bright, billboards that dot what are often new roads, that Correa’s revolución ciudadana esta en obra. How, even if, this so-called citizen’s revolution will continue under Moreno is still a relatively open question. It is likely that it will take a particularly Moreno-esque guise: see his plans to create homes for all under his flagship programme Todo una Vida, a sort of colourful parody of Beveridge’s ‘cradle to grave’.

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. Whilst government statistics pain a rosy picture on unemployment, underemployment is rife.

Correa’s sheer force of personality has been a key driver of government over the last ten years. In the absence of this, Moreno will likely have to continue on his more conciliatory line as he faces Trump in the US, a reduced majority of 74/137 seats in the unicameral Asemblea Nacional, and continued urban opposition from Ecuador’s two main cities – Guayaquil and Quito – both of which he lost in the election and which have their own political leadership under mayors Jaime Nebot and Mauricio Rodas respectively.

Whilst some have suggested that Moreno’s correísta Vice-President Jorge Glas and Correa himself, despite his planned move to Belgium, will be Moreno’s puppet masters. Still, though, given the constraints of the economy, domestic politics and personality, 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.

What might a somewhat more conciliatory Ecuadoran President mean for the Latin American left more generally?

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, those of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador and Hugo Chávez (and how Nicolás Maduro) in Venezuela.

There is, no doubt, a rich history of Ecuadorean populism: from five time president José Velasco Ibarra to Luis Gutierrez and Alfredo Palacio who, seeking to emphasise their extra-political credentials, dressed in army uniform and scrubs respectively whilst campaigning in the 2002 election. Correa’s tweets, littered with references to Ecuador’s apparently all-powerful ‘oligarquía’ are reminiscent of the rhetoric of a nineteenth century populists. After the announcement of Moreno’s victory last week, both he and Correa took to the stage in Quito to sing odes to Che Guevara.

In a signal of apparent unity of the populist left, Correa’s 2007 swearing in ceremony took place in the village of Zumbahua with both Morales and Chávez present. The village’s indigenous inhabitants sprinkled him with sacred herbs and evoked the spirits of the sun and moon and the blessing of the Earth goddess, Pachamama.

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.

Bilingual Correa with his Belgian wife and American PhD, was far more worldly and technocratic than Chavez, Maduro, Morales and, 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 him, Bolivia officially became a plurinational state, in a nod to the importance of indigenous movements to his politics. Correa, meanwhile, faced increasingly antagonistic relationships with popular indigenous movements in Ecuador.

In the aftermath of Moreno’s victory, Maduro and Morales both issued him public congratulations. Morales took to Twitter, announcing: ‘Socialism of the 21st century, always triumphant.’

Yet any apparent unity between these three populisms is likely to further fragment now. Venezuela is held up by many Ecuadoreans as a vision of what they do not want to become. For the right especially, Venezuela’s ‘Dictadura’ is a cautionary tale. And this takes place as Maduro, this week, has sought 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 will, like Maduro, be far more focused on domestic issues.

This, coupled with the need for Moreno to take a more conciliatory tone, makes it doubtful that his swearing in will be anything like Correa’s display of indigenous Ecuador and twenty first century socialism ten years ago.
Just over a decade on from Casteñada’s charting of the left’s rise, it is too easy to fall into a narrative of decline. There have been definite shifts to the right across the continent, from Argentina to Peru. Yet for the populist strand of the pink wave Casteñada identified, the story is one of an inwards turn and fragmentation – at least for now.