Ecuador is the left’s only electoral hope in Latin America

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 17, 2017


When Ecuadoreans go the polls on Sunday, left-wing leaders elsewhere in Latin America will be closely watching the results.


After a series of electoral setbacks for leftist candidates and incumbent coalitions over the past two years, Lenín Moreno, the candidate of the ruling left-wing Alianza País coalition will get the largest share of the vote. Though Moreno might still be forced into a runoff, the fact that he remains the favourite to win can be explained by a combination of electoral rules, division among opposition leaders and outgoing President Rafael Correa’s wise decision not to seek a new presidential term. If Moreno becomes the next president, he will have defied two recent trends: the electoral defeat of incumbent governments and the chain of losses for left-wing candidates in Latin America.


After 10 years in power and with the country undergoing an economic crisis, the electoral prospects for Alianza País should not look good. The economy suffered a 2.3 percent recession in 2016, for example. Though unemployment has declined to 5.2 percent, down from 7.4 percent a year ago, a majority of Ecuadoreans still believe the country is moving in the wrong direction.


Correa, who was elected in late 2006 and transformed the country’s institutions after he pushed for the enactment of a new Constitution and a series of laws that strengthened the powers and attributes of the state, remains the most important national leader. Though his approval has slipped below 50 percent, he remains the most popular president Ecuador has had in the last 25 years. Even though criticism against his confrontational style and fiery leftist rhetoric have increased in recent years, Correa continues to command more support than any other politician in the country.


His decision not to seek a new presidential term came as somewhat of a surprise. The 2008 Constitution, drafted by Correa’s supporters, established a two-term limit on presidential mandates (Correa was elected to his first term under the new Constitution in 2009), but given Correa’s political identification with the Latin American left-wing wave started by Hugo Chávez’s victory in Venezuela in 1999, many expected Correa to tamper with the rules to stay in power indefinitely.


However, Correa — who holds a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois and who opted to keep the US dollar as the national currency for his country, despite his strong anti-US rhetoric — resisted calls to push for a constitutional reform that would allow him to run again in 2017. Instead he chose his former vice-president (2007-2013) Lenín Moreno as the candidate for his coalition, Correa seems determined to take time off. He might temporarily move to Belgium, the country where he met his wife when they were both graduate students at the Université Catholique de Louvain in the early 1990s.


Continuity and change

Correa’s decision not to run for a new term has helped Moreno who can claim continuity with the president’s policies and, at the same time, symbolise change. As a low-key former vice-president, Moreno is more affable and less polarising than Correa. For Ecuadoreans who value the government’s investment in infrastructure and social programmes using the windfall profits produced by the high prices of Ecuadorean exports, Moreno indeed represents a good mix of continuity with much-needed change, now that headwinds in the global economy have triggered a recession. So, while Moreno lacks Correa’s charisma, his campaign has benefitted from the fact that the opposition has failed to paint him as the president’s puppet.


The conservative opposition has also undermined its chances by splitting itself between two candidates, a market-friendly business leader, Guillermo Lasso, and a social democratic politician, Cynthia Viteri. They have spent more time attacking each other than criticising Moreno. That is understandable, as they compete for a possible shot at unifying the anti-incumbent sentiment in a runoff election to he held, if necessary, on April 2.


The current electoral rules, adopted with the new 2008 Constitution, require either a majority in the first-round vote or more than 40 percent of the vote if the distance between the winner and the runner-up is more than 10 percentage points. With the opposition split in two, Moreno hopes to avoid a runoff by coalescing the leftwing vote and passing the threshold. Paco Moncayo, an alternative leftist candidate who previously served as major of Quito, might steal enough votes to prevent Moreno from reaching 40 percent. If that happens, given that voting is mandatory, Moreno should attract most of the alternative left-wing voters in the runoff and still become the next president.


Though they have been highly unreliable in recent elections, polls are predicting a tight race, with Moreno winning close to 40 percent and Lasso coming second with close to 30 percent. For Correa, a first-round victory for Moreno will be a vindication of his own 10-year legacy. For other left-wing leaders across the rest of Latin America, that result would represent a welcome end to a long series of electoral defeats since the end of the commodity boom sent Latin American economies into sluggish growth and — in some cases, like Ecuador in the last year — recession.