Will the Ecuadorian left buck the downward regional trend?

 Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 6, 2017


Though recent elections in the world have been a setback to incumbent parties, the presidential election in Ecuador scheduled for February 19 might defy that trend. The candidate from the left-wing Alianza País incumbent coalition is leading the race. Though he will probably be forced into a runoff, where the divided opposition will have an opportunity to rally behind a single candidate, former vice-president Lenín Moreno is the man to beat in Ecuador.


When Ecuadoreans vote to elect a new president and the 137 members of the unicameral Assembly, the name of President Rafael Correa will not be on the ballot for the first time since he became president in early 2007. The outspoken, energetic and somewhat authoritarian left-wing economist, who has led Ecuador for 10 years, will step down after completing his second term in office since the new Constitution was enacted in 2008.


As president, Correa has radically transformed his country. After winning the 2006 election, he led a push for a new constitutional convention. His overwhelming victory in that election gave his Alianza País coalition a commanding majority in the constitutional assembly. Correa custom-made a Constitution that reflected his left-wing agenda.


A combination of new inclusive, progressive politics (including indigenous rights, but — given Correa’s conservative Catholic values — the agenda was less amenable to gay marriage or abortion rights) and old-style state-centred industrial policy, Correa’s vision for Ecuador was often grouped together with other left-wing leaders in the region, led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Yet, with a PhD in Economics from the University of Illinois, Correa had a more developed plan for economic development, led by government spending in education, health, infrastructure and social programmes. Poverty reduction initiatives, financed by the profits from oil exports, helped to bring millions out of poverty. Spending on education and infrastructure boosted productivity. And despite his rhetoric, Correa kept the US dollar as the national currency, thus his government was somewhat fiscally constrained (though cheap access to credit allowed the government to run budget deficits for most of the period).


Correa also displayed some authoritarian traits. His fights with the press were recurrent. But Ecuadoreans seemed not to care much. In the 2013 elections, Correa easily won re-election with 57 percent of the vote. His Alianza País coalition holds 100 of the 137 seats in the unicameral National Assembly. The economy expanded significantly under his watch, with an average of 4.5 percent growth between 2007 and 2015. For most of his tenure, Correa has enjoyed majority support.


However, in the second half of 2015, the end of the commodity boom, including falling oil prices, hit the Ecuadorean economy hard. The country has been in recession for 18 months. Correa continues to be fairly popular — in part because he chose against trying to amend the Constitution to abolish the two-term limit on presidential terms — but an overwhelming majority of Ecuadoreans (more than 70 percent) believe the country is going in the wrong direction.


An uphill battle

Correa’s hand-picked presidential candidate, Lenín Moreno, has an uphill battle ahead of the vote on February 19. As Correa’s vice-president between 2007 and 2013, the affable 63-year —old Moreno is not a charismatic figure. Paraplegic and low-key, he has developed a reputation of a capable technocrat, consensus — builder and less inclined to public fights with the press. After 10 years of an intensive, media-hungry president, Moreno represents a welcome change for many Ecuadoreans. But the economy does not help much — when people want change, being the candidate of the 10-year old incumbent coalition is not a good thing.


Fortunately for Moreno, the opposition is divided. Six of the eight presidential candidates define themselves as in opposition to the government. Among them, three candidates have credible chances of making it through to the runoff.


Sixty-one-year old Guillermo Lasso is a businessman who is campaigning in the style of Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, denouncing corruption and promising common sense and market-friendly measures to restore growth. Fifty-one-year old Cynthia Viteri is the Social Christian candidate with close ties to the traditional political elite. She is seeking to position herself as the moderate candidate, between the right-wing Lasso and left-wing Moreno. Finally, the rising star in Ecuadorean politics is 34-year old AbdaláDaloBucaram. The son of a charismatic former president who was impeached in 1996 after 11 months in power, Dalo is a born-again Christian married to a television journalist. He is a former (mediocre) football player and is actively using social networks to move up in the polls.


One of those three will make it to the runoff and will need to bring the rest of the opposition under the same tent if they are to mount a credible challenge against Moreno in the runoff, scheduled for April 2.

In recent elections across the world, incumbent candidates have faced an uphill battle. Ecuadoreans might buck the trend in the upcoming election of February 19. Yet, if there are lessons to be learned from recent upsets, the last weeks of the campaign is when surprises begin to pop up.


For now, Lenín Moreno is ahead in the polls — but the campaign has just started.