Ecuador’s elections: the worst of all possible worlds

The tight victory of Lenin Moreno in the second round is the first to ensure the continuity of the left in this new Latin American electoral cycle. Yet the right does not accept the result. Español 

Gerard Coffey
13 April 2017

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa (C) and Ecuadorian ruling party candidate Lenin Moreno (R) attend the change of guard ceremony in Quito, Ecuador, on April 3, 2017. Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

During the first round of voting in the Ecuadorian Presidential elections, while commenting for one of the national TV channels, a friend claimed that a run-off would provide the eventual winner with more legitimacy. I did not agree. I told him so, and said I felt that a close race, especially in the eventuality of a win for the government candidate, might well provoke a campaign to destabilise the new administration similar to the one we have seen in Venezuela over the last few years. It might turn out to be, I suggested, the worst of all possible worlds.

Now, watching Guillermo Lasso, the losing candidate (until proved otherwise) in the April 2 election, ramping up the rhetoric and vowing not to accept the result because Lenin Moreno “did not win”, while his supporters block roads, burn tires and call for the armed forces to intervene, I feel as if I am watching a film whose plot I already know. I should say out of respect for my friend’s opinion that if Moreno had won by a narrow margin in that first round, or possibly by any margin, the script would almost certainly have been the same. There is nothing coincidental about what is happening on the streets of Ecuador.

I suppose the scene was set for conflict when, after receiving the results of an exit poll carried out by the company CEDATOS, Lasso declared himself the country’s next President. It was either a foolhardy or, more likely, a well calculated move that was bound to set the scene for protests if he didn’t win the final count, which after all is the only one that counts. In the worst case scenario, one that has been speculated on for some time, the final result would only have mattered to the banker candidate if he had won: in any other scenario, protests and claims of fraud were a foregone conclusion.

Up the poll?

One of the worrying elements of the CEDATOS poll was that the firm counts Lasso amongst its clients, which in itself is not of course a guarantee of partiality, although it certainly doesn’t help. Two more exit polls also gave the victory to Lasso (one of which, Market, is questionable; the other being Informe Confidential, one of whose owners is Jaime Durán Barba, strategist of Mauricio Macri in Argentina) while Perfiles de Opinión, a firm generally seen as favouring Alianza País candidates (the government is a client) gave the victory to Lenin Moreno. You believe the pollsters if it suits you, and at your own risk, as Alianza País itself has been made aware a number of times.

There is little doubt, on the other hand, that for any poll watcher the exit poll results came as a surprise, even the government candidate’s delegation seemed stunned by the news, Moreno promising to wait for the official count. The reason was perhaps that only ten days before, all the pollsters, including CEDATOS, were predicting a Moreno victory by a minimum of four points. And while things can change within a week, it seems doubtful that they could change enough to invert the numbers. But if there was doubt, that didn’t seem to bother Lasso or most of the major national TV channels, almost all fervently opposed to Lenin Moreno and, more importantly, to Rafael Correa and their party.

Was there fraud? Impossible to tell without a recount, which has now been partially accepted by Alianza País. Given the statements of the leaders of the losing party - they now say some 4.000 closing and counting protocols have been scrutinized by members of their group and found wanting – the allegations of fraud seem more likely to be part of a strategy, and no matter how many votes are counted, the opposition will never be satisfied. But fraud is certainly not impossible: claims during the first round that appeared legitimate were never dealt with. What the irregularities they mention mean in terms of the redistribution of votes is also anyone’s guess, and partial recounts in Pichincha, the country’s second most populous province, have confirmed the result. The opposition claims that only a full recount vote for vote will suffice, but with the final count now declared, they have little chance of seeing their objections accepted by the CNE or the courts.

People believe what they’re disposed to believe

The problem, however, is not simply one of a possible fraud, it is also a matter of the willingness of the majority of Ecuadorians to believe that the National Electoral Council (CNE) could be party to such a fraud. A number of extremely questionable actions over the years, most notably the disqualification of the signatures collected in support of a referendum over oil production in Yasuní National Park, have taken their toll. The result is that the reputation of the Council, whose membership is dominated by the governing party, as happens with almost all state bodies, is not exactly spotless. The people protesting in the streets are consequently not all Lasso supporters: a fair percentage, impossible to count, is people who simply don’t believe the government. They want clarity rather than a Lasso presidency.

Taking a step further back, the root of the problem can be found in the good intentions of the drafters of the 2009 Ecuadorian Constitution, intentions that in practice do appear to have paved the road, if not to the flames of hell, then somewhere close enough to make most Ecuadorians feel distinctly warm. The appealingly named Citizen Participation Council (CPCCS) instituted as part of the new Constitution in order to ‘depoliticize’ the selection of major state offices - Ombudsman, Controller and, most important of all, Attorney General - turned into a tool for the government to do quite the opposite.

It was a nice idea, at the time, one that bubbled up in the effervescent atmosphere that surrounded the Constitutional Assembly convened after Rafael Correa’s first victory in late 2006. Perhaps the drafters of the document were naive, or perhaps they underestimated Correa’s considerable political acumen, or perhaps no one expected Alianza País to dominate the political stage in the way it did after the 2013 elections. Whatever the reasons, the Council has turned into one of the major problems of the Ecuadorian political system. And people, a lot of people judging by Lasso’s percentage of the vote, are simply tired of it.

If you manage to control the Council, you then control everything else. Quite simple, really. And a highly effective way to keep your political adversaries under control, which is exactly what Rafael Correa did. With a two thirds majority in the National Assembly after the 2013 presidential elections, he and the ruling party were able to do what they pleased. And they were pleased to do a lot. A lot that meant a lot of pain for a lot of people and organisations that didn’t fit into Rafael Correa’s vision. To make things worse, the Left was clearly a target.

Some of organisations on that end of the spectrum openly declared their support for Lasso, and while the ruling council of the indigenous organisation Ecuarunari had to rein in its President, Carlos Pérez, who publically stated that a banker was preferable to a dictator, the Unidad Popular, the most left wing of all the parties, took the dramatic decision to actively campaign for the banker. The decision left many scratching their heads, and many more asking themselves how a party with links (indirect, they say) to the Communist Marxist Leninist Party of Ecuador could possibly campaign for a pro-market banker, a member of the extreme rightwing Opus Dei, with links to people such as Álvaro Uribe, Jose María Aznar and John Negroponte, and whose role in the disastrous bank crisis of 1999-2000 has never been adequately explained. The Ecuadorian Communist Party, on the other hand, publically supports Correa.

Of plots and men

Conspiracy theories can be a useful political tool, and most of them are nothing more than that: attempts to discredit opponents. Alianza País is hardly above using what comes to hand in order to undermine Guillermo Lasso or his left wing ‘allies’, and Rafael Correa has always been prone to cite the CIA as the fount of all opposition in this country. But as with the claims of fraud, much depends on what the public is prepared to believe. In the latest developments, Rafael Correa has accused Lasso, CEDATOS, and Participación Ciudadana, one of the companies that carried out a rapid vote count, of conspiring against his candidate and party.

The reality is that few believe Correa’s claims about the CIA: apart from the clumsy nature of some of the evidence and the visible erosion of his credibility, there is so much to complain about that it’s not hard to understand why many people are, shall we say, ‘upset’. This time, however, although not blaming the CIA directly, from this observer’s point of view his claims are more credible. The strategy of the Right in Venezuela and other parts of the world, Guillermo Lasso’s rightwing ties, corruption in government circles together with the anger in various sectors of the population have led many to suspect that, smelling blood, the right has embarked on a campaign to win no matter what, or how long, it takes. The CIA may not have the capacity or the ability to control everything, but that they are active here is beyond any reasonable doubt.

Whether the government has sufficient evidence to prove its theory is not yet clear. The offices of CEDATOS have been raided by the police and we will have to wait to see what they find, if anything. At this point, there is no way to discount the possibility that this could easily be just another move in the dirty world of politics, a world that in 2006 many of the now extremely disappointed thought Rafael Correa would deliver them from. But with the passage of time, and experiences such as the Police revolt of 2010, good intentions turned into pragmatism, also helping pave the way to a place most of us on the Left would rather not go, with him or any other leader.

More divided than ever

If that Left was divided during the 10 years that Rafael Correa led the country, now, with Guillermo Lasso and his campaign for ‘democracy’ occupying the streets and the moral ‘high ground’, the tendency is more fractured than ever. The radical Left has come together with the radical Right and the winner is the extreme Centre: Alianza País. Whether Lenin Moreno, recently confirmed according to the final count, can heal the rifts is now the big question. Himself a minor member of one of the revolutionary groups of the nineteen eighties, The Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), he has links and a past that should make him more open to dialogue.

But, by itself, dialogue is worth very little, at least to those on the receiving end of Rafael Correa’s strong arm politics. What is needed is real change to real policies. The problem is that Alianza País has become a juggernaut and juggernauts you don’t turn around so easily: there are too many vested interests involved. Rafael Correa may go to live in his wife’s country, Belgium, after the official hand over of power on May, 24, but imagining that he will simply disappear from the political scene is simply ‘dog dreams’, as they say here. Those that surrounded him, the arrivistes, the ideologically flexible and the corrupted, have gone nowhere. And speaking of corruption, with a Moreno victory we may never get to know which government officials were involved in the Odebrecht corruption scandal.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain: the Left is going to take a very long time to get over this latest disaster, and for those that actively campaigned for Guillermo Lasso, the situation would appear particularly gloomy. The harassment may get worse. We can only hope that, in the name of national unity, Moreno does not pursue the policy or retribution favoured by his predecessor. If he doesn’t, the reaction to this latest election may be a sample of what we can expect over the next four years.

At this point most of us simply want the dispute to be over, to be able to get on with our daily lives. But if Guillermo Lasso and his allies have their way, we may not get what we want. As they say Trotsky said: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”. 

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