Ecuador’s Return to the Past

By John Polga-Hecimovich and Francisco Sánchez*

Inauguration of the President of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso/ Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Ecuador’s underlying political and economic pathologies bode ill for its governability and democratic stability as President Guillermo Lasso, inaugurated in May, attempts a return to the neoliberalism, fiscal austerity, and minority government that marked the contentious politics of the 1990s and 2000s.

  • This “return to the past” is the result of successive governments’ inability to resolve longstanding structural deficiencies. The Revolución Ciudadana of President Rafael Correa (2007‑17) reflected an illusory stability that depended on favorable political-economic conditions. Correa promised political, economic, and social transformation; promulgated a new Constitution to achieve it; and touted a national plan of buen vivir. He survived 10 years in office, more than double any other president in Ecuador’s history, but his change was not fundamental or durable – a consequence of the inefficiency, centralization, and personalization of decision-making under one man.
  • Under the Lenín Moreno government (2017‑21), Ecuador’s pathologies reemerged salient as ever. Correa’s acolyte in the recent presidential election, Andrés Arauz, lost in the runoff against Lasso, who campaigned on a platform of fiscal austerity that was hardly an attractive proposition for an electorate battered by the COVID‑19 pandemic and years of slow economic growth.

While breaking with one version of its past – correísmo – the electorate seems to have resigned itself to another. Ecuador’s longstanding political dysfunction, driven by multiple factors, looms large.

  • Ever-changing rules of play. Since independence from Spain in 1820, Ecuador has had 20 constitutions and myriad electoral rules. In moments of crisis, especially since Ecuador’s democratic transition (1978‑79), elites have generally sought to alter the formal rules of the game – as a kind of restart button. Although Correa proclaimed that the Constitution he pushed through would endure for 300 years, it was modified 23 times in nine years to correct errors and alter citizens’ rights.
  • Weak rule of law and persistent corruption. “Extractive elites” siphon resources from the people and often support institutions and policies inimical to sustained economic growth. Stories abound of the cultivation of party adherents and votes through clientelism, and corruption has politicized the judiciary. Correa created a breeding ground for scandal. In 2017, the court sentenced him in absentia to eight years in prison and banned him from politics for 25 years, whereby he fled to exile in Belgium.
  • Fragmented parties. Ecuador’s party system is one of the most fragmented and weakly institutionalized in the world. Since returning to civilian rule, the parties have proven unable to sustain electoral support – most last only a handful of elections before they disappear. Despite high party turnover in the legislature, voters lack clear institutional channels of representation.
  • Slow growth and surging debt. Since the mid-2010s, economic, political, and social crises have reversed many of the gains made during the greatest economic boom in the country’s history. Correa’s large investments in infrastructure, such as roads, hydroelectric plants, schools, and health facilities, reduced political pressures. But the average annual deficit jumped to 3.5 percent of GDP between 2007 and 2017, and total foreign debt jumped from $10.5 billion to $31.5 billion, and reached $40 billion by 2020, while domestic debt grew fourfold. President Moreno’s efforts to change course provoked outrage and social unrest.
  • Significant interbranch conflict. Ecuadorian executives have been politically weak despite an institutional structure that strengthens the presidency relative to the legislature. They have to build coalitions through the distribution of pork and other perks, leading to weak and corrupt governance.

These factors drastically reduce Lasso’s policy options. In legislative elections held last February, moreover, his Creando Oportunidades (CREO) party won only 12 of the 137 seats in the National Assembly. His 4.8-point margin of victory in the second presidential round gives a false sense of a popular mandate. It was a case of “outcome inversion” – when the first-round winner is defeated in the runoff – in a context of low party-system institutionalization.

  • Another challenge is that the country’s long-standing pathologies and the turmoil they cause have undermined Ecuadorians’ support for democracy, which fell from 66.7 percent in 2014 to 54.4 percent in 2019, a trend that is mirrored in several other Latin American states. Satisfaction with how democracy works in Ecuador, peaking at 68.8 percent in 2014, has once again become a minority position.

After the promises of reformist leaders, stability, and favorable economic conditions, Ecuador – like much of Latin America – seems to have returned to, or to never have actually escaped from, the volatility of its past. Its social, political, and economic weaknesses are mutually reinforcing. Economic hardship exacerbates the highly transactional and patrimonial nature of the political system and weakens the party system as lawmakers switch allegiances and votes based on whichever political broker can offer more.

  • Limited political and economic resources handicap Lasso’s efforts to address urgent problems, including the pandemic, that would sorely challenge even an experienced leader. Without a team with public-sector know-how, inexperienced politicians often end up absorbed by the pathologies of a political system that make their weaknesses more acute. From a historical perspective, there is no evidence to suggest that Lasso will succeed where previous presidents have failed.

July 27, 2021

* John Polga-Hecimovich is associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, and Francisco Sánchez is professor of political science and administration and director of the Iberoamérica Institute at the University of Salamanca. This article is adapted from their recent essay in the July issue of Journal of Democracy.

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