What did the left in Ecuador do right?

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald April 7, 2017

 

The narrow victory of Lenín Moreno, Ecuadorean presidential candidate of the leftwing Alianza País ruling coalition, is the first win for the left in Latin America since the victory of Mauricio Macri in late 2015 in Argentina began a wave of right-wing electoral victories in the region. There are three reasons why the Ecuadorean left, led by outgoing President Rafael Correa, managed to stay in power. The left in Ecuador benefitted from divisions in the opposition; it offered a significant change in leadership in a context of continuity in policies; and it successfully cast the opposition candidate as a radical eager to restore the old order rather than to move forward to a better future.

 

Moreno, having failed to secure victory in the first-round vote on February 19, when he garnered slightly less than the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff, started the six-week campaign without momentum. His rival, the former banker and market-friendly right-wing businessman Guillermo Lasso, who received 28.1 percent — more than polls predicted — seized the moment and secured support from conservative moderate Cynthia Viteri, whose 16.3 percent first-round vote could prove decisive in the runoff. As the campaign unfolded, however, Moreno stayed on message while Lasso failed to gather support from the overwhelming majority of Ecuadorians who believe the country is on the wrong track: the change they wanted was apparently not the type Lasso was offering. They chose to stick with the same leftist coalition that has ruled the country since early 2007.

 

Though President Correa came to receive more disapproval than approval, his hand-picked successor Lenín Moreno was able to show himself as his own man. After serving as Correa’s vice-president between 2007 and 2013, Moreno was replaced on the ticket by Jorge Glas. When President Correa announced that he would try to reform his custom-made 2008 Constitution to stay beyond the two-term limit, he appointed Moreno as the presidential candidate, with Glas as his running mate. The 64-year-old Moreno, paraplegic since 1998, when he was shot in a robbery attempt, is a far less divisive figure than Correa. His confinement to a wheelchair and his soft-spoken calm make him visibly less aggressive than Correa. Whereas Correa enjoyed picking fights with opponents and the press, Moreno is less confrontational. His politics are in line with Correa’s, focusing on a state-centred economy and wary of the public sector, but his way of expressing his views makes him seem far less radical than his predecessor. The sense Moreno’s personality conveyed of a move away from the confrontational and polarising Correa presidency won him some voters who no longer approved of Correa but who remained sceptical of Lasso.

 

Still, Moreno got only 39.4 percent in the first round-vote, giving Lasso the chance of the runoff vote to lure all those Ecuadorians eager for a change of direction. Yet Lasso was unable to convince a sufficiently large number of voters. Even though turnout increased from 81.6% to 83% of eligible voters, Lasso did not attract the new voters he needed to catch up with his rival. In the end, his support grew more than Moreno’s — from 2.6 to 4.8 million voters between February and April; yet Moreno also attracted many new voters, increasing his support from 3.7 to 5 million voters. Lasso received two out of every three voters who cast ballots for alternative candidates in the first round or who abstained or nullified their votes. But it was not enough to make up for the advantage Moreno had in the first-round vote.

 

Lasso’s inability to attract more voters was the result of the aggressive and confrontational campaign for the first round between him and Cynthia Viteri. After she harshly criticised Lasso, it was difficult for many of her sympathizers to vote for him in the runoff. Similarly, Lasso did not do enough to attract left-wing voters who wanted change but were afraid of the radical departure from the current government’s economic policies he campaigned on. The Correa administration also successfully depicted him as a wealthy banker whose interests were at odds with those of poor Ecuadorians. While Moreno campaigned as the candidate who could relate to people’s sufferings and fears, Lasso simply promised to create new jobs. Ecuadorians chose to vote for the candidate who cared more for them, rather than for the one offering them more economic opportunities.

 

It is true that the government got involved in the campaigning and that President Correa became Moreno’s strongest supporter. That certainly created an un-level playing field; yet it also constituted an opportunity for Lasso to win the backing of those who rejected Correa and thought the country has headed in the wrong direction. Unfortunately for him, Lasso failed to do so. Fortunately for President Correa, for President-elect Moreno and the Latin American left, Ecuadorians narrowly voted to end the losing streak of leftwing parties in Latin America.