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Time for a new Ecuador?

As the February 4 referendum results came out, President Lenin Moreno vowed to “build a new Ecuador”. Do they really represent a watershed moment, or simply a consolidation of power? Español

Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno shows his ballot before casting his vote during a referendum in Quito, Ecuador, on Feb. 4, 2018. (Xinhua/Santiago Armas) PA Images. all rights reserved.

The vote is over, and the winners are celebrating. As expected, and for once correctly predicted by the polls, the pro Lenin Moreno YES vote achieved a substantial majority (approximately 2:1) in all seven questions posed.

The bigger question is whether the latest Ecuadorian referendum, the eleventh since electoral democracy returned 40 years ago, represents a watershed moment, or simply a consolidation of power within an already known structure.

The motive for the vote was undoubtedly the need to strengthen what at the beginning of President Moreno’s mandate appeared to be a weak hold on power. Since barely scraping across the line in the presidential elections of March 2017, the objective was always consolidation, and the political scenario has in fact undergone a radical change over the last year.

Moreno’s approval ratings presently hover around the 60% or 70% mark, depending on who you believe. The President’s new found popularity is due to two factors: a charm offensive channeled through a broad consultation process over policy and future direction, trying hard to offend no-one, and the almost unbelievable hostility of former President Rafael Correa and his group of loyal followers, who often give the impression that they would not be out of place in a revival meeting.   

Correa himself has not of course simply confined himself to shouting from the sidelines. Campaigning for a total rejection of the consultation, he has made his presence felt with his hostile criticisms of his former Vice President for his alleged betrayal of basic principles. The tactic obviously did not resonate with the majority, although whether that matters to his still substantial support base is another issue.

In truth, it is unlikely that Correa ever expected to win; his campaign was more likely based on a personal sense of his own historical destiny and, more pragmatically, on the need to keep his name and that of his followers in the public eye or, to be more exact, in its face.

What he actually thought of the questions was probably irrelevant. On both sides, this was an all or nothing affair. And while the referendum has stoked debate, for most it was clearly not a matter of considered choice between options that could vitally affect the country’s future - it was quite simply a SI or NO affair: a vote of confidence in Lenin Moreno and a rejection of Rafael Correa, or the other way around.

Voting to limit the presidency to two terms will supposedly put Ecuador on the high road, moving it away from the tyranny said to be at the heart of unlimited reelection.

Not to say that the questions were without importance. Voting to limit the presidency to two terms will supposedly put Ecuador on the high road, moving it away from the tyranny said to be at the heart of unlimited reelection (if you can manage to sustain it without fraud).

There is more debate to be had here although, in practical terms, the approval of a two-term limit will simply take us back to provisions of the 2008 Montecristi Constitution - a limit overturned in 2015 by a Correa’s parliamentary majority, with no public consultation.

The move was heavily criticized at the time, and overturning it will in some measure satisfy a desire for revenge. It will of course also prevent Rafael Correa from running again for President (but not for any other political post), something that is music to the ears of many, and not simply those in Moreno circles.

Whether Rafael Correa could have actually won if he had had the chance to run again is a real question. He may well have lost, had he been able to run for a third time in March of last year, for there is little doubt that Moreno won in some measure due to the fact that he was NOT Rafael Correa.

Now, almost one year later, the corruption scandals, the jailing of Vice President Jorge Glas, to say nothing of interference in the justice system - something that should be receiving more attention -, added to the former President’s aggressiveness, have undermined him to the majority of the population.

Correa’s approval rating is down in the 30% range and it would have taken a major turnaround, both in terms of personality and the makeup of his inner circle (who seem to have little idea of how disreputable they have become), for him to have had a chance to win in 2021.  Now, for the moment at least, it is a non-issue.

The other major question resolved, at least partially, is the fate of the Committee for Citizen Participation and Popular Control (of government). Allowing the committee’s structure to be changed is a popular measure for a number of reasons, principally because the committee became the nucleus of state control, permitting Correa and his people to name all the important positions, including the Attorney General and, from there, to control of the entire justice system.

The agency turned into in a pyramidal scheme that allowed for almost anything to be done with little chance of reproach. Impunity and persecution would probably be the most accurate way to describe the way the system worked.

It was not supposed to be this way, of course. Either through naiveté or simply underestimating the power of the Correa phenomenon, the 2009 Constitution opened the door for what took place over the last few years, particularly since Correa’s overwhelming parliamentary majority of 2013. It should be noted that the President of the Assembly that drafted the Constitution, Alberto Acosta, ran for President that year, but polled less than 4%.

So, while making changes to the Committee structure is a fine idea for most, the problem for Moreno is how to do it without losing a golden opportunity to further consolidate his hold on power, while appearing not to do so. The question for the rest of the population is whether the new structure will actually deliver on the President’s promise to be more open and democratic, while at the same time keeping the Right at arm’s length.

As for the other questions decided on Sunday, they are important without affecting the structure of the political system. The question of Moreno’s future plans is still up in the rarified if heavily polluted air of the capital.

The strength of the triumph could allow Lenin Moreno to rule with a firmer hand, the question is whether he will choose to do so, and in doing so confront rather than succumb to the demands of sectors of the Right that supported him. 

It is unclear whether victory in the referendum will signal a shift away from the almost deferential style he has adopted up until now: trying to please everyone, at least until the vote is over. The strategy has served him well, as his approval ratings and the magnitude of the referendum victory clearly demonstrate.

The strength of the triumph could allow him to rule with a firmer hand, the question is whether he will choose to do so, and in doing so confront rather than succumb to the demands of sectors of the Right that supported him in his anti Correa stance, and that will now be at his door cap in hand.   

The chances are reasonable that we will in fact see a change. Moreno’s main advisors are left of centre, and he himself was on the margins of a revolutionary movement as a young man - although that, admittedly, could be said of a great many during the nineteen eighties and nineties, people who now could be said to be somewhat ‘less radical’.

So, Moreno seizing the day and returning to his left wing roots and inclinations is a possibility, although for the moment no more than that. On a positive note, the economy is in his favour going into 2018, and money is always useful in getting people to see your point of view.

The price of oil has risen substantially and the international prognosis is positive, as long as you are willing to ignore global warming. The referendum result may also make Moreno’s life easier by convincing some of the less intractable Correa supporters to come on board for the duration of his mandate. It is also hard to leave privilege behind.   

Correa’s actions, whether by design or clumsiness, almost forced the Moreno administration into the arms of the Right simply in order to ensure its own short term survival. 

As for the former premier, who has lost all the recent battles over both his own future and that of his party, this latest defeat will probably reduce his ability to disrupt the functioning of the new government, at least to the extent that he has been able up to this point.

Correa’s actions, whether by design or clumsiness, almost forced the Moreno administration into the arms of the Right simply in order to ensure its own short term survival. Irony then, that if Correa himself had been President in the current context of tight government finances, he would undoubtedly have been forced into similarly closer relations with the banks and business. This is hardly idle speculation: the proposed sale of assets, privatisations, and free trade agreements were already under way before Moreno took control.

In truth, there is no way to know whether Correa’s attitude and actions over the last nine months have simply been due to bull headedness and a sense of personal insult - something that clearly is operating -, or at the same time a tactic which allows him to occupy the ground to Moreno´s left.

The maneuver is undeniably on his agenda: the plan being to form a new party with a progressive agenda. Given the basic lack of leadership and coherence of the old left, the idea of a powerful new block is not a bad idea, above all because unless Moreno surprises, in the present circumstances the best we are likely to get is a centrist coalition.

But perhaps we should be grateful for not so small mercies. For the moment, a centrist government is not so negative, implying as it does the inability of the Macri/Temer hard Right to find a foothold in the country.

On the other hand, the lack of any coherent platform and the lack of credibility of Correa and that of his tainted inner circle provide means that this is not the longer term answer, above all as it may, at the same time, block the emergence of another progressive political group.  

Centrism may be the way of the post Correa era. 


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