Reviving Correismo?

Ecuador’s elections on 20 August produced some surprises even as they seemed to mark a return to a familiar pattern. After the shock of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio’s assassination on 9 August, a crowded field of contenders narrowed to produce a run-off between a Pink Tide restorationist and a scion of the Ecuadorean elite: on 15 October, Luisa González, the candidate of former president Rafael Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution Movement, will face off against the centre-right’s Daniel Noboa, a US-educated businessman and son of banana magnate and five-time failed presidential aspirant Alvaro Noboa. Yet hopes for an end to Ecuador’s political turbulence remain slim: the second round will yield only a brief presidency and a short-lived parliament, as the victors serve out the rest of President Guillermo Lasso’s original term before fresh votes are held in 2025.

August’s snap elections came two years ahead of schedule thanks to Lasso’s decision to dissolve congress in May. He narrowly survived a vote to remove him from office in June 2022, but starting in January 2023 faced mounting allegations of corruption – including reports tying members of his family to powerful Albanian mafia figures operating in Ecuador. In May, after the National Assembly began impeachment proceedings, he invoked the 2008 Constitution’s ‘muerte cruzada’ provisions – literally, ‘two-way death’ (though ‘mutually assured destruction’ might be a better translation). Article 130 allows either the executive or the legislature to remove the other from office, on condition that new elections be held for both branches. Designed to prevent deadlock, here it was deployed to save Lasso from being unceremoniously booted out of power.

The new election cycle also shifted attention away from Lasso’s record. As well as presiding over a continuing economic slump – Ecuador’s per capita GDP shrank by 5% from 2019 to 2022, the worst performance in South America – his mandate coincided with a surge of violence. From having one of the lowest homicide rates in Latin America in the mid-2010s, Ecuador now has the fourth highest, nestling between Colombia and Mexico. In 2022, the murder rate hit 26 per 100,000 – double the figure from the year before – and the 2023 figure is likely to be higher.

Nearly half of this year’s murders have occurred in the city of Guayaquil alone. The geography of the violence points to its source: as the country’s main port, Guayaquil is a highly strategic resource for organized crime. Ecuadorean narco groups, in coalition with Mexican drug cartels and Balkan mafia networks, have gained in wealth and power in recent years, their reach stretching from the country’s prisons to the heart of the political elite, if the investigation into Lasso’s family is anything to go by. Since 2021, Lasso has declared 10 separate security-related states of emergency in different parts of the country, but these have done nothing to stem the tide of killings. Alongside plummeting living standards, the violence has been one of the major factors driving a massive increase in out-migration: 1.4 million Ecuadoreans left the country in 2022, and another 800,000 have left so far this year.

Concerns about security were already high on the agenda before Villavicencio’s death catapulted them to international attention. He was not the first political figure to be targeted. Over 30 candidates and local politicians were attacked either side of local elections earlier this year; in February the mayor of Puerto López was murdered, and in July the mayor of Manta and a local assembly candidate in Esmeraldas province were both killed. But Villavicencio’s assassination was seemingly of another order – especially because it came so soon after the candidate had revealed he had been threatened by an imprisoned gang leader. Within hours of his death, the authorities arrested six Colombians allegedly working for Ecuadorean narcos, though Villavicencio’s family also hinted at state complicity in the crime.

A former union leader in the oil sector and later a journalist, Villavicencio became an anti-corruption campaigner in the 2010s and was a prominent opponent of the Correa government. Forced into hiding and then into exile, he returned after Lenín Moreno took office in 2017, and entered parliament in 2020. Besides assailing corruption, his 2023 campaign platform included anti-crime proposals such as building a new maximum security prison, militarizing Ecuador’s ports to strangle the drug trade, and creating an ‘anti-mafia unit’ that would draw on foreign support.

Villavicencio was not the only law-and-order candidate: there was also Jan Topic of the Social Christian Party, a former mercenary in the French Foreign Legion who has professed his admiration for the mano dura policies of Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele. González, by contrast, placed more emphasis on prevention in her programme, which otherwise offered faint echoes of the Correa government’s social agenda, promising increased spending on health and education and renegotiation of the country’s debts.

Come election day, the Citizens’ Revolution candidate performed in line with expectations, but few would have anticipated the rest of the results. On a high turnout of 81%, González’s 33% of the vote was just one percentage point more than the total secured in the first round in 2021 by her running mate Andrés Arauz. Like him, she also scored highest along the coast – winning 38% in Guayas province and hitting 50% in Manabí. Far less predictable was the identity of her closest rival. Daniel Noboa had been polling in the single digits in the run-up to the election, and was rarely mentioned as a possible contender, despite his august family name and self-presentation as a youthful technocrat. Yet he secured 24% of the vote overall, and came first in 6 of Ecuador’s 24 provinces.

To this unforeseen outcome we can add the scale of the votes that went to Villavicencio and Topic. Villavicencio’s name was still on the ballot on 20 August, and it seems likely that feelings of grief, outrage or sympathy added to his tally. Polling in fourth or fifth place in the weeks before his death, in the end he finished third with 17%. In 4 provinces he topped the list, and in 15 of them he pulled in between 20% and 30% of the vote. Topic, meanwhile, finished fourth with 15%, though he came third in half a dozen provinces.

Perhaps the most startling result, though, was Yaku Pérez’s disastrous showing. In 2021, he had run for the indigenous Pachakutik party and, channelling anti-correista sentiment and discontent with Ecuador’s extractive economic model, had scored 19% in the first round. Barely edged out by Lasso, his call for abstention in the second round, rather than support for Citizens’ Revolution candidate Arauz, had effectively paved Lasso’s path to power. This time, with Pachakutik divided and endorsing no candidate, Pérez got only 4% of the vote. The collapse in his support was all the more surprising given the success of two referendums challenging the extractive model. In one, the nation as a whole voted against further oil exploration in the Yasuní national park by 59% to 41%, while in the other, voters in Pichincha province agreed on measures to block mining in the Choco Andino forest by 68% to 32%. How far these verdicts actually shape policy remains to be seen, but they will be hard to ignore.

Under the muerte cruzada provisions, elections for the National Assembly were also held on 20 August, and here the voting produced a similar fragmentation. The Citizens’ Revolution Movement did better than its presidential candidate, scoring 39%, as did Villavicencio’s Construye (Construct), which scored 21%; but Noboa’s National Democratic Action did worse, with 15%, as did the Social Christian Party with 12%. The results mean that no party will have a clear majority in the chamber, and blocking minorities may come together more easily than a ruling coalition. Whoever wins the presidency in October will likely find the going hard.

Though the outcome of the run-off is hard to predict, Noboa arguably stands the better chance. With González securing 33% of the vote and Noboa 24%, just under half the electorate is effectively in play. Judging by the first-round results, it is unlikely to split evenly. Between them, Villavicencio and Topic – both law-and-order candidates of a supposedly post-ideological kind – pulled in more than 30% of the vote. Which way their supporters tilt in October seems likely to be decisive. On the face of it, both sets of voters would seem to have more in common with Noboa’s than González’s. Yet although Topic has already endorsed Noboa, it’s not obvious that Social Christian Party voters will follow suit: some may – as they have at times in the past – side with correismo. Still, the bond markets have already perked up at the prospect of a win for the ‘market-friendly’ candidate, which suggests which way the odds are stacked.

The main difficulty confronting González is that of extending her support base enough to build a majority. The similarity between her first-round score and Arauz’s 2021 result points to the solidity of the Citizens’ Revolution core vote, but at the same time defines its limits. Reaching beyond that will involve some skilful coalition-building and horse-trading. Meanwhile, hovering over those efforts will be the spectre of Correa himself: González has widely been seen as a proxy for the ex-president, currently in exile after being handed an eight-year prison term for corruption in 2020. Given the interim character of the government to be elected in October, a González victory would likely be a prelude to Correa’s return to the country, and to a potential presidential run of his own in 2025.

In more ways than one, then, the October run-off will be framed as a battle between correismo and anti-correismo. Here González faces a further obstacle. Ecuador’s August vote in many respects conforms to the region’s anti-incumbent pattern – Javier Milei’s candidacy in Argentina the most glaring example, Bernardo Arévalo’s win in Guatemala the most hopeful. Not only did Topic and Villavicencio perform well, but Noboa too has presented himself as offering ‘new ideas’. In this context, González’s pledge to bring back the better days of the Pink Tide may prove double-edged. And while her appeal rests on repeating Correa’s successes, both in Ecuador and in Latin America as a whole, the social and economic panorama is much bleaker than it was at the Pink Tide’s peak.

Read on: Tony Wood, ‘Retrocession in Ecuador’, NLR 129.