Ecuador: Surprises and Prospects (ARI)

Ecuador: Surprises and Prospects (ARI)

Theme: The Ecuadorean elections ended in a triumph for Rafael Correa in the second round and with the overthrow of the dominance of the traditional parties in Congress. These two results could give rise to far-reaching changes in the political system of one of Latin America’s least stable countries.

Summary: This analysis underlines the aspects of the presidential and legislative elections which could lead to significant changes in Ecuadorean politics. First, it deals with the possible effects of the election of a President with no political party or organisation to give him the necessary support. Secondly, it investigates the possible consequences of the changes to the party system. Thirdly, it looks for explanations of the economic orientation that could have influenced the vote and how the new Government could reform the economy. It sums up by underlining the problems that the new Government will most likely have to face.

Analysis:The word which first springs to mind when analysing the recent Ecuadorean elections is ‘surprise’: at both the victory of Rafael Correa and also the make-up of the new legislature in Congress. In spite of the increasing significance of persons from outside the world of politics, it is still remarkable that the new President was almost unknown to the general public, with a political career consisting only of a fleeting passage through the present Government’s Ministry of the Economy, who has never been a member of any organisation and who has no political party behind him. Likewise, although votes for the so-called traditional parties had been clearly declining since the elections of 2002, nobody expected their downfall to be quite so devastating, not to mention that their places would be taken by recently constituted parties. Voting opinion with regard to the economic option supported by the majority is also surprising.

In addition to being surprising, these are the key elements that will define the political situation in the near future. It is probable that a new phase in Ecuadorean politics will emerge, although many of the characteristics of recent years will be maintained, especially the country’s instability. Due to their importance, we will deal with each separately.

The Victory of Rafael Correa
Meteoric is probably the best word to describe the political career of Rafael Correa. Originally from Guayaquil, this economist studied in Belgium and the United States and taught at an upper-class private university. His public acts were limited to occasional economic analyses in the media. His move to politics occurred when he was made Minister for the Economy in April 2005, in the Government of Alfredo Palacio, who, as Vice President, had replaced the ousted Lucio Gutiérrez. At a time of enthusiasm for the country’s regeneration or ‘re-foundation’ announced by the new President, Correa was the representative par excellence of the Quito street movement, the forajidos. His radical discourse, his heterodox position on the economy and the actions he carried out from the Ministry quickly made him the heterogeneous and formless movement’s man on the inside.

Although he did not hold his position for very long, his policies left a deep mark on the Ecuadorean economy. Contrary to the trend set by his predecessors, characterised by maintaining the balance of the country’s macro-economic variables and by fostering a greater openness, Correa proclaimed himself in favour of greater protectionism and State intervention. His refusal to repay foreign debt, his preference for greater subsidies and his opposition to the signing of a free trade agreement with the US were the cornerstones of a position that garnered him significant admiration from left-wing circles. This admiration increased when he eliminated the FEIREP oil stabilisation fund, created to make resources available in the event of a drop in oil prices on the international market. Reasoning in favour of the redistribution of earnings by means of injecting resources into health and education and with a nationalist discourse, he easily convinced other members of Congress, from all parties and political viewpoints, to support the initiative and pass the corresponding law.

His interlude at the Ministry ended abruptly due to differences with the President of the Republic. But, as often happens, the short time he held the position was highly beneficial to him, allowing him to point out that his actions had not been fully implemented and, particularly, to hint at the dark forces behind his leaving. His departure was also seen as the end of the forajido movement in the Government, a move which doubtless enhanced his image in a country that gives the same value to strong leaders and to political victims. By the end of his time at the Ministry, Correa was both.

In these conditions, it was not long before the sectors that had provoked the Government’s downfall and those deeply disillusioned with politics and politicians gathered around him. The most active among them, minority left-wingers very active in social issues, directed their efforts at the still distant electoral campaign. All that needed to be done was to define the possible candidates in these sectors, whose power was known to be more symbolic than with any real possibility of taking an important position in the challenge. This was helped by the crisis in the indigenous movement, the main left-wing force, which has been unable to recover from the effects of its participation in the 2000 coup and its collaboration with Gutiérrez’s government.

At the same time, it was obvious that the other parties were finding it difficult to structure their candidacies. Contrary to previous occasions, when problems were caused by excess supply, this time there was a shortage of political leaders. The long reign of vertical, closed but nominally democratic structures, dependant on well-entrenched leaders, was taking its toll on the oldest and biggest organisations. The main parties (PSC, Christian Social; ID, Democratic Left; and PRE, Ecuadorean Roldosists) were finding it very hard to field candidates either from within or without their organisations, eventually having to make decisions not totally favourable to their interests. The only ones not to have these problems, although for other reasons, were the National Action Institutional Renewal Party or PRIAN, configured more as another of businessman Álvaro Noboa’s many companies rather than as a political party, and the Popular Democratic Movement or MPD, a small Maoist grouping. However, these two cases were also an expression of disillusionment with traditional parties and a forewarning of the advance of the anti-political party tendencies.

This combination of rejection of politics and crisis in the parties could well explain the victory of an authentic ‘outsider’ such as Rafael Correa. Adding in the impact of a discourse indiscriminately labelling all his rivals as corrupt and Álvaro Noboa’s limitations in the second round, an approach can be made to the reasons underlying his victory. Hence, it would be wrong to consider votes for Correa to be fundamentally left-wing. A simple glance at the country’s electoral history shows that no left-wing party would obtain sufficient votes to place it in the second round. His mandate is therefore not as clear a victory for the left as is claimed: it is altogether more complex and more heterogeneous and will doubtless materialise in a diverse and contradictory series of demands on the Government.

However, it would seem that Rafael Correa has not yet understood this complexity. His first actions as President Elect hint that he interprets his victory as the absolute triumph of his ideological proposals, without considering the ins and outs of the plural Ecuadorean reality. Thus, his cabinet will clearly be left-leaning, with no openness to other sectors. Moreover, because of the relative political and administrative inexperience of its members, it will also be an expression of his decision to make a break not just with politics but with history. Obviously, in doing so he runs the risk of isolating the political and social forces that would ensure stability and governability, and is introducing a high level of uncertainty into the Government’s capacity to run the country, particularly in sensitive areas such as Foreign Affairs and Defence.

The Replacement of the Political Parties
The second surprise is in the changes to the party system. What is most remarkable is not the displacement of the major political parties, which could have been expected from their mistakes and the emergence of a climate hostile to them. What is surprising is that, unlike what happened in previous years in Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia, their downfall has not meant the end of the party system –which persists, although with drastic changes to its members–. The parties which had held the top places have been replaced by two relatively new organisations which, with all certainty, will remain in the political arena for some time, as they are not simple campaign-oriented set ups. Álvaro Noboa’s PRIAN and Lucio Gutiérrez’s PSP (Patriotic Society Party) obtained shares similar to those held up to 2002 by the PSC, the ID and the PRE, which, in turn, have dropped to the lowest levels of their history. Moreover, and this should be borne in mind for the future, the uniform territorial distribution of votes for the two parties could give them the nationwide character lost by those they have displaced.

In accordance with the current constitution, these two parties will share the Presidency of Congress over the coming four years (PRIAN over the first two years, PSP for the second). This means, first of all, that they will have a decisive influence in defining the political agenda. Secondly, they can use legislative activity to strengthen their links with their respective client networks, their true roots in society. Finally, they will have immense political resources to pressure a Government whose greatest weakness is precisely in Congress where, due to its decision not to present any candidates, it has neither seats nor any possibility of structuring a support coalition. Accordingly, both parties will probably try to maintain these conditions for as long as possible. This will clash with the decision of the President Elect to convoke a constituent assembly which, among other things, could dissolve Congress.

The replacement of the traditional parties will have another effect insofar as the campaign leading to Rafael Correa’s victory was biased against them (pejoratively referring to them as the “partocracy”), but did not count on the electoral support that the new parties would obtain. Obviously, when the electorate voted they made a clear distinction between the two, meaning that maintaining an anti-party discourse will not be simple. Moreover, the new parties have already laid claim to legitimacy, made possible largely by the characteristics of the presidentialist regime, but also as new organisations, quite different to those for whom the President Elect sought electoral annihilation.

In view of these results, it would seem that it would have been better for Rafael Correa to maintain the old party system. While it was there, it provided the best target for his arrows, but now that it has gone or is barely hanging on, he risks shooting off in all directions. The convoking of a constituent assembly, which initially should have posed no problem, with the sole opposition of the spent traditional parties, will now be much more difficult. With no seats in Congress, with the old parties in retreat and with two new organisations taking their place, the context is fairly complex for the new Government.

Any similarities with Fujimori, Chávez and Morales, outlined in certain international media, falter at just this point. While their election victories were also based on anti-party discourse, the party systems of their respective countries had already collapsed or were in a very steep downward turn. The reality of Ecuadorean parties is quite different, and this will largely define the parameters within which the incoming government can move on 15 January.

Economic Orientation
Although these two situations are already disconcerting enough for observers of Ecuadorean politics, there is a third which is even more surprising. In a context of sustained economic growth over the past five years, with levels of stability previously unknown in the country’s history, with the best indicators of the past two decades, with poverty having been reduced by over 15% and with the real minimum wages at their highest ever, Ecuadorean voters could have been expected to opt for continuity. However, they have come out very much in favour of a radical change, apparently pulverising the validity of theories of the economic determination of voting.

However, a more detailed analysis can offer some explanations for this conduct. First of all, we have to note that none of the 13 first-round candidates expressed a clear, decisive position in favour of continuity and stability. In an attempt to tune into the winds of change that they imagined to be the majority position, they all spoke out in favour of breaking with the past. Not one dared to make a diagnosis based on indicators and showing the reality of the economic situation. On the contrary, the general vision was one of catastrophe, of a country on the verge of disaster. In view of this outlook, all the electorate could do was to choose the candidate that seemed to approach the situation with the greatest sincerity. In other words, the candidates were victims of an apocalyptic vision which, in most cases, they had conjured up for their own campaigns.

Secondly, there were grave doubts regarding the capacity of Álvaro Noboa, the other final-round candidate, to manage the national economy. His lack of training, the perceived potential conflict of interests arising from his position as the country’s biggest businessman, and indifference to the laws governing the campaign, were basic factors that created a high level of mistrust in wide sectors. The handouts and exaggerated offers made throughout the campaign only served to increase uncertainty.

Thirdly, a large part of the economically motivated vote was probably cast in favour of the brother of former President Lucio Gutiérrez and his party. His excellent electoral performance cannot be explained exclusively by the client system, particularly when we consider the limitations of the presidential candidate and the relatively recent work of his party. This vote must have had a relatively important economic component, fuelled by the good performance of the former colonel’s government. It could be argued that this was due to high oil prices, money sent home from Ecuadoreans abroad and dollarisation, factors beyond the control of the Government, but what count at voting time are results and not necessarily the causes behind them.

In short, this electoral result will bring about a fundamental change in economic policy. Along with setting up a constituent assembly, this is one of the issues that the President Elect considers a central mandate from the Ecuadorean people. His interpretation of the electoral results may be summarised in one word: change, both in political and economic terms. Obviously, this perception greatly simplifies the immense complexity behind the elections, and is a poor guide to understanding the heterogeneity of Ecuadorean society when it comes to taking Government decisions.

Conclusions: In a context characterised by instability, the results of the presidential and legislative elections in Ecuador have led to an unexpected outcome, which will doubtless give rise to major changes in the political system. For the second time running, the voters have elected a person with no political career and no party. However, unlike previous occasions, this time he has no seats in Congress and will be seeking to apply radical changes for economic and political reform. To do this, he will have to install a constituent assembly, which, in addition to its explicit purpose of rewriting the constitution, will be a life raft for the President. Without any such assembly, he will find it almost impossible to maintain power in a country which has already seen the downfall of its last three elected presidents. However, as an assembly of this kind is not provided for by the Ecuadorean constitution and, with no legislative power to overcome legal obstacles, the only means of doing so would be to take politics to the streets, the major political arena over the past few years.

At the same time, the party system has undergone major changes, with the organisations dominating the scene for over two decades having to take a back seat. Their place was taken by two relatively new parties, who will have to find mechanisms to maintain their primacy. The permanence of a party system with renewed members could prove to be an obstacle for the President Elect, as his campaign promises were based on the disappearance of the parties and on majority support for his indiscriminate criticism of the political class. The clearly differing preferences shown in the presidential and legislative elections (fuelled largely by the winner’s decision not to field any candidates for Congress) are a sign to be interpreted very carefully by the forthcoming authorities and which, in general lines, once more set the ideal stage for the blocking politics that characterise Ecuador. Accordingly, the election results foretell no changes in the two major characteristics of Ecuadorean politics: confrontation and instability.

Simón Pachano
Lecturer and researcher at the Latin-American Faculty for Social Sciences (FLACSO), based in Ecuador.