Ecuador elections 2017: A change is as good as a rest?

The governmental candidate is expected to win on February, 19, but the country could be facing a second round of voting. If so, the unforeseen might happen. Español

Gerard Coffey
8 February 2017

President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa celebrates with the supporters of Alianza País (AP), the tenth anniversary of the citizen revolution denominated 'La Decade Ganada' in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Sunday, January 15, 2017. NurPhoto SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

There is hardly what you would call air of expectancy surrounding the presidential elections due to be held on the 19th of February; the general impression of the eight candidates is that they’re a particularly colorless bunch. The judgment may be unfair. Candidates rarely have an opportunity to show their worth on the national stage before winning power, and for those that do, a lofty public image is not necessarily an advantage: Gordon Brown, the ‘big clunking fist’, comes to mind, although there are others.

In this particular Ecuadorian election the candidates suffer a further disadvantage:  the yard stick is clearly the actual president, Rafael Correa, the longest serving and most popular president in the country’s history, whose enormous presence has overshadowed everything and everyone during his ten years in power, including the candidates hoping to take his place.  

Combined with Correa’s popularity, that even the financial crisis of the last two years[i] has managed to dim only slightly[ii], the perceived weakness  of the other candidates means that the governing  party aspirants -  two ex-vice president s : Lenin Moreno and Jorge Glas as presidential and vice presidential respectively – will be extremely difficult to overcome. 

Victory is not assured for the Alianza País duo, however. There could always be a second round of voting, and despite his high level of public acceptance, Moreno, an amiable politician with a somewhat left wing background – much more so than Rafael Correa – and who uses a wheelchair as a result of being shot in a robbery, is not Rafael Correa.  At the same time, the political profile of his vice presidential partner, who represents the more right wing current of his party, has been damaged by persistent rumours of corruption, the impact of which has only been enhanced by the opposition’s calls  for him to be audited. There is clearly a lot of politicking going on, and without any solid proof, whisper campaigns are only that, but they can hurt. One thing is certain, though: clean hands or not, Glas is hardly what you might call a people’s hero.

Due to good luck or good management, or both, the recent corruption scandal involving the state oil company Petroecuador muted the opposition parties’ battle cries, but recent declarations by Carlos Pareja Yanuzelli, the ex- head of Petroecuador, have revived the scandal: the now resident in Miami, Florida, accused Jorge Glas of being aware of everything that went on inside the company[iii]. Another case of corruption involving the Brazilian company Odebrecht has also had an effect, strengthening the general perception that all politicians are corrupt - an opinion which may have worked to the government’s advantage. Thirty three million dollars were reportedly used to win construction contracts on which there was substantial overpricing. No names have been released, which surprises no-one given that the Attorney General is clearly a tool of the administration, and at this point no government officials are under investigation. In fact, Ecuador is the only country implicated where no investigations are under way.

The balance sheet

In favour of the governmental candidates is that many of the changes of the last ten years have been positive, especially for those with low incomes: public services modernized; hospitals built or re- equipped; schools and universities built or remodeled and bogus universities closed; hydro-electric stations built after decades of inaction and electricity supply stabilized after decades of unpredictable power cuts; major improvements made in the national road system, which mean that times for bus travel have been cut.  These are the things that matter most to the majority of the population, and the ruling party knows it. It is doubtful that capitalism or any other ideology is even an issue. It’s the living standard that counts.

Whatever the advances are, there is no doubt that there need to be adjustments, in the education and health sectors in particular, and that there are serious problems in other areas, some extremely so. Indigenous people have been displaced by oil or mining projects from their traditional lands - owned by them or not, they are essential to their way of life - sometimes accompanied by violent clashes and casualties, while the deaths of a number of anti-mining activists go unexplained. A teachers union controlled by the Marxist Leninist Communist Party of Ecuador (PCMLE) was shut down, while another pro government union was established: dividing opposition organisations is a constant. There are other instances that, for lack of space, cannot be cited.  But perhaps the most serious problem of all is that the justice system is completely under government control – the system has been much improved on the lower levels, but be careful, if you have a case against the state, you need to be aware that you are never going to win. 

Of course there have been winners during the Correa years. The middle class benefitted enormously from the buoyant economy of the years 2007 to 2014, mainly based on oil projects, that they often criticize. Many now complain about lack of ‘freedom’, too many taxes, too much bureaucracy. Professionals want the government ‘off their backs’ and complain about lack of freedom of the press.  In the latter case there is a foundation to the accusation that the government hounds its opponents, for it controls a number of outlets, including a daily paper which clearly functions as a propaganda machine.  

For a left wing government, the ‘free’ press is a real problem but, for this present version, the fight has more of a historic rather than an ideological basis.

And the runner up is….

Those are the issues that form the background to the February, 19, election. The details are that since being named as the government party’s candidate, Lenin Moreno has held a substantial lead over his rivals according to all the polls, as he did over his main internal rival, Jorge Glas. The now vice presidential candidate was supported by Correa as well as a large number of the high level operatives within the party who were clearly concerned for their collective future in case of a Moreno victory. The problem for both Glas and his supporters was that, despite his high profile in the aftermath of the earthquake of April 2016, his numbers did not add up: the polls suggested he could be beaten. In the end pragmatism, a well-established government trait, won the day.

As polling day approaches, the major question now seems to be not if the Moreno-Glas team will win, but rather by how much - enough to claim the throne in the first round of voting? No one can be sure: they would need 40 % of the valid votes cast[iv], and a lead of at least ten percent over the runner-up. Who that will be is even less clear.

The major debate now centers on who can finish second, possibly provoke a second round, possibly unite all the anti Correa-Moreno voters, and possibly win. The possibilities are many, the probabilities few. Notwithstanding the difficulties, a recent debate amongst the other candidates, all seven of them (Moreno did not participate), was all about claiming the runner-up spot. The general perception is that no one was able to leave the zombie zone and present themselves as a solid candidate. Cynthia Viteri, the only woman candidate and an experienced member of the Assembly, was perhaps the only one to generate a certain level of respect, while not necessarily convincing with her party’s libertarian pro-market stance. How useful that will be on voting day remains to be seen.

According to a telephone sample carried out during this debate, only 9.37% of the population watched it and 7.76% decided to change their vote. More interesting perhaps is that almost 73% said they didn’t understand the candidates’ economic proposals, while slightly more than 75% said they didn’t understand the anti-corruption proposals[v]. The numbers are hardly comforting for the advocates of representative democracy. The undecided vote is extremely high, hovering somewhere in the mid 40-50% range depending on which polling company you believe - if any of them can be believed. [vi]

The poll position.

One of the many comic aspects of the campaign has been the behaviour of the polling companies, several of which are clearly aligned with particular parties and their candidates. As is to be expected, they deny the fact. The clearest example is Market, whose polls consistently give the Christian Social Party (PSC) candidate, Cynthia Viteri, a higher percentage of the vote than the others.

The ‘others’ are not far behind: CEDATOS, providing support for  the banker-candidate Guillermo Lasso, once considered a virtual certainty for the second place, and Perfiles de Opinión favouring the Alianza País candidate. The ‘left wing’ candidate general Paco Moncayo, hero of the war against Peru in the 1990’s, a former mayor of the capital, Quito, and the now acknowledged head of the extreme center party, Democratic Left, has been isolated.  He has a polling company too, but the mainstream media, who naturally have their own candidates, take no notice of it. As, unfortunately for him, do few others for that matter.    

It’s worth mentioning that after a number of failures in the past number of years, few imagined that the reputation of the pollsters could get much lower, but it has. They deserve a medal for achieving the impossible and at the same time for providing comic relief in a basically boring campaign.

The issue is not so funny for the candidates and their backers, however. Now, in their desperation to reach second place, two of the candidates have recently declared war on each other and on one of the polling companies. The Lasso team have accused the Viteri pollsters (Market) of bias, of publishing false information and making up data, which surprises no-one. The response of the latter has been to ask why, if they are so biased, did the former attempt to contract them for the last five weeks of the campaign? Not one to be left on the margins, Rafael Correa has also accused Market of publishing false information.[vii]

The left: a footnote.

After a number of years patiently constructing a political platform and policy agenda, the left came together in the so-called National Agreement for Change.  A long selection process led to General Moncayo being chosen as the presidential candidate: the hope being that despite his questionable left credentials, his name recognition and reputation as an honest man - for a politician - would act as springboard to a solid presence in the next Assembly. Unfortunately, the gamble seems unlikely to bring the hoped for rewards.

According to all the polls except one, Moncayo is in last place of the four candidates with any real chance of winning[viii], the only difference being in the percentage of the vote he is likely to get. No one apart from Estrategia y Tactica gives him more than 14%, which is clearly insufficient to attract the ‘anyone-but-Moreno-Alianza País’ vote. While there is an obvious bias against anyone linked to the more radical left parties, his lack of charisma and funds have proven to be real handicaps. Despite a few bright lights amongst the candidates for seats in the Assembly, for the moment it seems like plus ça change for the red end of the political spectrum.

P.S. The second debate on TV was on Sunday, February, 5, and it went off as was generally expected: few bright lights, the main candidates extremely cautious, and as a consequence little likelihood that voters will change their mind. Moreno participated and, after a shaky start, performed well enough to not lose; Moncayo was generally wooden, with a few animated moments; Lasso constantly repeated his promise of a million jobs, that of course no one except the faithful believes; and Cynthia Viteri played the women’s vote card which, in a macho society such as Ecuador, doesn’t guarantee anything. The most interesting aspect was perhaps Rafael Correa tweeting his millions of followers with comments about the opposition candidates. Like him or not, you just can’t ignore the man.   

[i] Since July 2015 the country has suffered five consecutive trimesters of negative growth.

[ii] According to CEDATOS, which does not favour Correa, his popularity in December 2016 was still over 40%

[iii] Pareja Yanuzelli released a number of videos in which he talks at length (with lie detector strapped to his arm) about corruption in the state oil company. Rafael Correa naturally accused him of being in the pay of the brothers Isaías, ex bankers condemned for their role in in the bank crisis of 1999-2000, who are also Miami residents and who the US refuses to extradite.

[iv] Voting is obligatory in Ecuador. According to one analyst, if that were not the case abstentions could reach 60%





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