Ecuador’s elections and the parable of Ned Stark

The visceral "for Correa-against Correa" axis is more passionate than the ideological "left-right" one, and nobody is going to give his arm to twist before the second round of the elections. Español

Adrián Tarín
23 March 2017

Ned Stark. Game of Thrones. Photo: lalineadefuego. All rights reserved.

The second round of the elections in Ecuador, on April 2, brings to my memory a crucial scene in the plot of Game of Thrones. This is not an original idea of mine, but political scientist Héctor Meleiro’s – in Winning or losing: political lessons from Game of Thrones (2014) -, which I have come to call "the parable of Ned Stark." Ned is the head of an illustrious House living in an imaginary world. This House is vassal to the King of the Seven Kingdoms, by the name of Robert Baratheon. In addition to being a feudatory, Ned is Robert's close friend. For this reason, and because Ned is a pure, noble, just and honest man, he is summoned to King's Landing, the Seven Kingdom’s capital city, to be appointed Hand of the King - that is, the sovereign’s highest-ranking counselor.

The first decision that Ned has to make is as difficult as the one Ecuadorians have to make on April, 2: he must choose between killing a rival, Daenerys Targarien, or let her live. These are the arguments for each option: Daenerys intends to raise a powerful army to take over King's Landing and restore her royal lineage, for her ancestors had ruled that land in the past; so, she must die now that the conditions are right. However, at this stage Daenerys is a helpless woman, confined to the other side of the Narrow Sea, a hard to cross natural border; it is unlikely that she can achieve her goal, so killing her is really a waste of time and resources.

In this dilemma, both options entail their own risks. If Daenerys is murdered, the Kingdom will have to carry the unworthy weight of having done away with a woman who posed no immediate danger. But if she is not, a bloody war could be unleashed in the future. Ned, so pure, noble, just and honest, takes the middle way: considering that the other paths are not satisfactory, he resigns his post as Hand of the King. But since this is not intended to be a spoiler, I will end the parable right here.

What is interesting about this story is that it illustrates very clearly the nature of politics. In Meleiro’s words, "the dilemma Ned Stark faces is whether to save his soul or the city. He finally chooses to safeguard his moral integrity by giving up his position as Hand of the King. He prefers not to make a decision because he is actually a follower of classical ethics and does not understand that the lesser evil of doing away with the Targaryen can prevent the greater evil of a new war. However much it may seem so, Ned Stark is not guided by the pursuit of the common good, but by the salvation of his soul. "

This is an interesting reflection that grabs us all by the lapels and places us facing a mirror: is null voting actually a political stance or is it just an ethical choice? I have always believed that there are powerful reasons not to vote in a bourgeois party system, where representation is minimal and candidates are often dreadful. This is why I am not bringing this parable up as a claim against those who will cross out both binomials out, but rather as an open reflection on their roots and consequences.

Íñigo Errejón and Chantal Mouffe had an interesting discussion - in To build a people (2015) – on the causes and significance of the 15M movement in Spain, that social majority which in 2011 massively supported or went camping in the cities’ squares claiming that we are not a commodity in the hands of politicians and bankers. And they both came to the conclusion that what was truly radical about it was that participants stopped secretly suffering the system and met in public spaces to voice it. This they called the "politicization of pain" which, by the way, tangentially links politics with advertising. You are only doing politics if you take action and let it be known - when the commons come together. So, to be confident that, spontaneously and quietly, an absolute majority will decide to vote null and collapse the system is actually closer to naivety than to politics. We should always remember that José Saramago’s Essay on lucidity is a work of fiction, not a historical account.

Since no party or social movement of any significance is conducting a public, well organized, disciplined mass campaign for the null vote, but it is simply being put forward as the most ethical option for getting away with not resolving internal contradictions, we are definitely leaving behind here the field of politics and moving on closer to the balm of clear conscience. When the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) legitimately resolved in February to say "no to the continuity of the dictatorship and to the consolidation of capitalism", one wonders whether such a statement would not make more sense if it were aimed at creating a broad front under that slogan (that is, politicizing the null vote), instead of being simply a particular stance to steer clear of the electoral process. In an interview in El Universo, CONAIE’s president, Jorge Herrera, offered an explanation: "No, not at all. We will not allow null votes. Nor blank votes. There has to be a strong decision. And that decision is against Correism". This was in February, and it now sounds as a purely rhetorical exercise.

Doing politics, continuing to be the Hand of the King and taking sides, entails accepting that blows will be dealt, that you will dirty your hands, that you will be showing your face and that you might get it bashed. This is the difficult situation facing not only those planning to cast a null vote, but also the voters for the coalition of center-left and left-wing parties National Agreement for Change (ANC). Popular Unity, a member of this coalition, has already declared that they will be campaigning for banker Guillermo Lasso, without asking for anything in return. In other words, for free. This is another peculiarity of the Ecuadorian Left: even though it can hold the frying pan by at least part of the handle, it prefers to get burnt by grabbing its side. It could be argued, of course, that statements are all very well, but action is another thing altogether. That Popular Unity is saying this for purely tactical reasons, but that a negotiation has been cooking for months behind the scenes which, among other things, has already resulted in the promise that Lasso made in August about recovering the National Teachers Union’s (UNE) legal status.

That would be a good thing: the Popular Unity’s support would have some cost for the banker. But holding hands under the table is a risky business. First, the lack of transparency, in the case of leftist organizations, undermines their credibility in the long term. Also, secret agreements are easier to break. On the other hand, if they are not publicly announced and exposed - if you do not do politics -, you are leaving the field open for the Right to take all the credit – and to continue shifting left-wing common sense to the Right: so that it can keep on presenting as right-wing measures such things as returning its legal status to a union, free admission to university, or feminism.

What is striking, however, is that the Left’s first option for a possible negotiation has been Lasso. The very first week after the first round of the elections, most of the parties and social movements were quick to deny any possibility of an agreement with Correa’s Country Alliance (AP). Lourdes Tibán (congresswoman for the Plurinational Unity Movement Pachakutik, a member of the ANC coalition), stood at the entrance of the National Electoral Council (CNE) and called for "democracy". Carlos Pérez (president of Ecuarunari, the Confederation of Kichwa Peoples, a member of CONAIE) said, without blushing, that he preferred a banker to a dictator (on another occasion we shall talk about dictatorships; I still do not know where Franco's troops buried my great-grandfather, and I blush when I read these things). Paco Moncayo (the ANC presidential candidate) tweeted that he would "never" support Lenin Moreno (AP). What kind of Left is this, that instead of taking advantage of the fact that AP is in need of votes and affection is yielding to the Right from the start?

Let it be said that the outgoing government has not shown any willingness to negotiate and that the outgoing President behaves with his usual arrogance even when the objective conditions for it are not there anymore. At the same time, having to sit down at a negotiating table with those who have imprisoned and deported activists, in addition to the string of well-known misdeeds they are responsible for, can be particularly painful. But this is precisely what a negotiation is. You do not negotiate with your peers, but with the ones who could be dragged towards your positions. So, there are no excuses for not trying.

However, since February, 20 (the first round of the elections), the ANC and many social movements have set aside the opportunity to be heard by Moreno and force him to accept some basic leftist commitments. I can think of four simple, feasible, unambitious deals which, in the event of an election victory, would improve people's lives: 1) Liberation of political prisoners; 2) No more privatizations during this term; 3) Balancing the use of energy resources and respect for the indigenous culture, spaces and ways of life; 4) Decriminalization of abortion and approval of gay marriage. Last month, we started a 45-day race against the clock - which is wearing us out - to extort some agreement along these lines and discuss a number of crucial issues for the Left. If the government’s bloody-mindedness finally derails the operation – which is not at all unlikely -, other options could then be considered. Still, the visceral "for Correa-against Correa" axis is more passionate than the ideological "left-right" one, and nobody is going to give his arm to twist before the second round of the elections.

So, we are faced with the challenge of the lesser evil: politics and ethics. On the one hand, knowing full well that we do not have our own winning project - crossing out both binomials is also a lesser evil since, I understand, no one is a member of “the null vote party" -; on the other hand, facing the second round without problems of conscience, or with political courage. Spanish philosopher Manuel Sacristán used to say that politics without ethics is politicking, but that ethics without politics is very much like narcissism. Politicking or narcissism: such is the tragedy of the Ecuadorian elections.

This article was previously published by lalíneadefuego.

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