Ecuador: Referendum Marks Critical Juncture for Moreno and Correa

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

Two men sit at a table with a yellow background

Current President of Ecuador Lenín Moreno (left) and ex-President Rafael Correa (right) during the presidential transition last spring. / Micaela Ayala V / ANDES / Flickr / Creative Commons

A national referendum in Ecuador this Sunday appears likely to give a boost to President Lenín Moreno in his political struggle against his predecessor, Rafael Correa (2007-2017).  The central item on the seven-question ballot will be whether or not presidential term limits should be reinstated into the Constitution – an initiative that Correa, who would like to run for a fourth term in 2021, is campaigning against.  The country appears poised to move on from the thrice-elected yet polarizing Correa to the more conciliatory Moreno; at the time of writing, citizens resoundingly endorse all seven referendum questions, with no question polling lower than 66 percent approval.  A “yes” vote on term limits would end Correa’s future presidential aspirations and position Moreno – Correa’s hand-picked successor – as the standard bearer of the political left in Ecuador.

  • The feud between Moreno and Correa – and within their ruling Alianza PAIS (AP) party – has been building for nearly a year and a half. Last November, one of Moreno’s closest advisors, Eduardo Mangas, alleged in a leaked recording that Correa hoped Moreno would lose the election.  Correa purportedly provided no logistical or financial support for his chosen successor while saddling him with the deeply unpopular Jorge Glas as running mate.  According to Mangas, Correa preferred that AP lose the presidential election and instead govern through its control of the vast state bureaucracy and National Assembly – with Correa returning to the presidency in 2021.  Eking out a narrow victory (51.6 percent against Guillermo Lasso’s 48.8 percent), Moreno upended this plan.
  • The morenista and correista factions have divided the AP since Moreno took office in May 2017. Vice President Glas, a Correa ally accused of taking $13.5 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, was sentenced to six years in prison and impeached as part of Moreno’s campaign against corruption.  The AP Secretary, a correista assemblywoman, tried to remove Moreno as party head after he alleged the party put a hidden camera in his office.  Correa and 28 legislative deputies have left the party and formed what they are calling the “Citizen’s Revolution Party.”

Moreno took office facing a polarized political environment and daunting fiscal deficit and weak GDP, but his sound policies and astute political strategy have given him the highest approval ratings in Latin America.  His focus on the popular valence issues of corruption and re-election – about which citizens will usually share a common preference regardless of ideology – has also helped distract voters from the tepid economy.  The referendum is a particularly smart gambit.  It proposes seven different changes that would reverse actions taken during Correa’s rule – and that happen to enjoy broad popular support.  Instead of trying to push them through established institutional channels staffed with correistas, like the National Assembly or the courts, the President is turning directly to the public to give the measures legality.

Absent any bombshell announcements or drastic changes in public opinion, Moreno looks set to coast to victory in the referendum, quite remarkably establishing him as the country’s most powerful politician.  However, he faces a number of challenges to governance over the remainder of his four-year term.  The defection of Correa and his faction from Alianza PAIS left him with only 46 seats in the 137-member National Assembly.  This means Moreno’s bloc will continue to depend on ephemeral voting alliances with the center-right to govern – exactly like much of the 1979-2006 period when no popularly elected president finished his term.  Moreover, after 2.7 percent GDP growth in 2017, the IMF predicts that Ecuador’s economy – vulnerable because of its dependence on oil exports – will grow by only 2.2 percent in 2018 and 1.7 percent in 2019.  Moreno should enjoy his victory on Sunday, but he will soon face challenges greater than Rafael Correa: long-term governance in a country that has long proven averse it.  Whether he is up to the challenge remains to be seen, although he has so far proven resourceful.

February 2, 2018

*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the US Naval Academy.  The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

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