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Ecuador's election surprise

About the author
Guy Hedgecoe is co-editor of the website Iberosphere, which provides news, comment and analysis of Spain and the Iberian world. He was previously editor of the English-language edition of El Pais, and founded and edited the Ecuador Focus weekly bulletin and the Qorreo website

The surprise result of Ecuador's first-round presidential election on 15 October 2006 means that a pro-United States multi-millionaire capitalist will compete in the run-off with his political opposite - a radical nationalist economist who claims to have a close friendship with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

The banana magnate Álvaro Noboa (of the Partido Renovador Institucional de Acción Nacional [Prian] party) confounded the slow start to his campaign and poor showing in many opinion polls, to emerge as - at least after the official counting of 80% of the ballot-boxes - the marginal winner of the first-round election, with 26.24% of votes. Former finance minister Rafael Correa (of the Alianza País [AP]), who had led many polls for the last weeks of the campaign, was a close second, on 23%.

The clear lead of the two frontrunners, coupled with the fact that together they received only around half of the popular vote, creates a pressure on them to appeal to supporters of other candidates in the second round (some of who, performed respectably in particular areas - Gilmar Gutiérrez, younger brother of former president Lucio Gutiérrez, for example, gained more than 70% of the vote in his native Napo province).

The tight nature of the result, the persistent claims of fraud that have attended it, allied to the vastly opposing ideologies of these two men, mean that the campaign now leading up to the 26 November run-off is likely to be acrimonious as well as hard-fought.

Already on election night, as it became clear who the two finalists were, Noboa was firing the opening salvos. "Correa's stance is communist, dictatorial, the same as Cuba's, whereas I am proposing we become like Spain, Chile, the United States or Italy", he said. His opponent also went on the offensive. "The same old lot, who fritter money away, fritter demagoguery and insult the dignity of Ecuadorians, want to continue dominating us," Correa declared.

Guy Hedgecoe is editor of the English-language edition of El Pais. He founded and edited the Ecuador Focus weekly bulletin, and reported the Andean region from Ecuador for CNN, National Public Radio, the Miami Herald and The Financial Times

Also by Guy Hedgecoe on openDemocracy:

"Losing Ecuador"
(26 April 2005)

"Ecuador's energy-fuelled politics"
(28 June 2006)

The crisis of the parties

The fragmented nature of politics in this nation of 13 million - along geographical, ethnic and ideological lines - is reflected in the fact that thirteen candidates competed in the first-round ballot. This political division has seen seven presidents come and go over the last ten years, three of them ousted before the end of their four-year tenure. Neither Noboa nor Correa has the kind of established support to guarantee this would not happen again under their leadership. But despite the enormous differences between these two candidates, who seem to have little in common apart from their birthplace of Guayaquíl and professed Christian beliefs, each acutely reflects Ecuadorians' clamour for a completely different kind of society and lifestyle.

The 43-year-old Correa began the campaign as a rank outsider, a former finance minister who boasted of his friendship with Venezuela's Chávez and whom few gave any chance of ever reaching the presidency. Nonetheless, his platform and charisma made him the most talked-about candidate on the campaign trail. Born into a lower-middle class Guayaquíl family, he taught economics at a Quito university and studied in Chicago and Belgium before a four-month stint as finance minister under current president Alfredo Palacio. But it is his planned political reforms, rather than his economic proposals, which hogged the limelight during the election campaign.

"We don't have political parties here, what we have are organised mafias who defend vested interests," Correa said halfway through his efficiently run campaign. Presenting himself as "a humanist, leftist Christian," he espouses what he calls "a civic revolution." Dressed in the trademark lime green of his Alianza País movement, Correa's main campaign prop was a belt he brandished, promising to "give a whipping" to corruption and traditional politicians (his name, Correa, means "belt" in Spanish). This is a symbol of the deep-rooted shake-up of the political system which he plans to instigate as president, starting with the establishment of a constituent assembly which would rewrite the constitution.

"We're looking at a major crisis of the political parties. The Ecuadorian people have had enough of them and the parties only have themselves to blame," says sociologist Simon Pachano of the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences (Flacso). "Ecuadorians are not only anti-party right now, but they are against the whole system. So a candidate who presents himself as being against the parties is going to have a great deal of support."

Correa has also woven a fierce nationalist economic thread into his anti-establishment political discourse. His stormy term as finance minister, during which he maintained an ongoing dispute with the International Monetary Fund, is testament to his attitude towards the international financial community. He rejects outright the prospect of negotiating a bilateral trade deal with the United States, or allowing the United States military to keep its air-force base in Ecuador's coastal city of Manta. As for the oil sector, a president Correa would seek to reduce the profits of international firms operating in Ecuador. He has also openly mulled defaulting on the country's foreign debt.

All of the above places this political upstart not only among the new wave of left-leaning Latin American figures currently dominating the region, but firmly on the side of the most radical faction, particularly Chávez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Chávez himself, meanwhile, has avoided getting openly involved in Ecuador's campaign, mindful of the controversy his backing for the radical nationalist Ollanta Humala caused in Peru in the two-round presidential election of April and June 2006.

Opponents, yet allies

By contrast, the greatest ally of Noboa, who spends a great deal of his time in the United States, would likely be Washington. Having promised to cut off ties with the governments of Cuba and Venezuela on the grounds of their leftist tendencies, a president Noboa would be virtually alone among his neighbours as the leader of a rightwing administration.

This will be the third presidential run-off in a row for the 55-year-old Noboa, who lost the 1998 and 2002 second-round ballots. His open-market, internationalist stance reflects his upbringing. The son of self-made banana tycoon Luis Noboa, Álvaro was educated in Ecuador, Switzerland, and the United States and he inherited a portion of his father's fortune. His personal wealth is now estimated at around $1.2 billion, with more than 100 companies within his empire.

For much of the campaign, Noboa was apparently off the pace, lagging behind Correa, social democrat León Roldós and Cynthia Viteri of the centre-right Social Christian Party. However, while his awkward personal style may not have helped him, getting out his chequebook to pay for school and hospital equipment in poor villages across the nation in the latter stages of the campaign certainly did. Noboa's huge support in these rural areas has always confounded the pollsters, which rarely stray out of the major urban hubs. His propensity for leaping off the campaign bus whenever it passed a church in order to kneel and pray to keep up his self-styled status as "God's candidate" may also have had an impact on Catholic voters.

By the first-round vote Correa was the firm favourite, largely because he had managed to impose his political reform agenda as the main issue of the campaign. In his slipstream, almost all his opponents - with Noboa a notable exception - felt obliged to promise some form of political revamp. And yet, while Correa's constituent assembly proposal has strong support, the success of Noboa, who has promised to "turn Ecuador's 6 million poor into middle-class citizens," shows that Ecuadorians' economic aspirations are as great as their disenchantment with the political system.

But there is one further trait which unites this pair of politicians who for the most part stand poles apart. Both harbour a deep distrust of and disdain for Ecuador's electoral institutions. Correa was making claims of electoral fraud before the elections had taken place, and as it became apparent that he was trailing Noboa in votes, so his complaints increased in tone. Noboa, meanwhile, has claimed electoral fraud in the past, after his paper-thin loss in 1998 to Jamil Mahuad, and during this election he had no qualms about flaunting the law by proselytising as he cast his vote, or overspending lavishly on his campaign.

This behaviour inevitably creates concerns that Ecuador might witness the kind of political chaos that followed Mexico's election on 2 July, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador refused to acknowledge Felipe Calderón's victory. That is still not certain, but the approaching run-off between Correa and Noboa will without a doubt decide whether Ecuador joins the radical Andean axis led by Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, or goes the other way, seeking economic salvation under the wing of the United States.

For many, the choice on offer on 26 November - voting is obligatory in Ecuador - is highly unappealing. "Unfortunately, in Ecuador over the last twenty-five years we've been forced to vote for the least bad candidate," said Oswaldo Enríquez, an architect from Quito. "We just want a level of stability and for a president to complete his term would be a major step forward."


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