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.

Ecuador: Moreno’s Victory Probably Not Enough

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

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President-elect Lenín Moreno at a meeting to discuss the presidential transition in April 2017. / Agencia Noticias ANDES / Flickr / Creative Commons

President-elect Lenín Moreno’s narrow victory and modest legislative majority fall short of what he needs to push his costly leftist agenda while simultaneously bridging deep socio-political divisions and struggling with vexing economic challenges.  Moreno, of the ruling Alianza PAIS, narrowly defeated Guillermo Lasso of the CREO movement, 51.16 to 48.84 percent, in Ecuador’s presidential runoff election on April 2.  As a referendum on outgoing president Rafael Correa and his “Citizen’s Revolution,” the election marks a victory for Latin America’s ideological left after setbacks in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru.  The splintered opposition vote largely coalesced behind Lasso’s candidacy – he earned only 28.09 percent in the first round – but an uneven electoral playing field (including support from state-run media and Correa’s deployment of thugs to intimidate Lasso supporters) and his affiliation with the banking crisis of 1999 appear to have hurt him.

  • The incoming government appears committed to continuing Correa’s economic and social policies. Moreno is reassembling many of the further left members of Correa’s team for his own government, including powerful ex-ministers Fander Falconí and María Belén Moncayo.  Although he is more rhetorically moderate than his predecessor, Moreno is an avowed socialist.  As a young man, he was a member of the fringe Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Left Movement, and as president-elect he has already promised an additional US$2 billion on top of the government’s already unsustainable social spending.  At the same time, Moreno has adopted a more conciliatory tone with the United States than Correa and has already made overtures to social movement leaders that had fallen afoul of the outgoing president.

Although Moreno will enjoy a legislative majority, he is taking office under difficult political and economic circumstances that will test his leadership.  The outgoing government’s politicization of public agencies like the National Electoral Council (CNE) has hurt the president-elect’s legitimacy.  The slim difference in the vote spawned protests outside the CNE in Quito by mostly middle-class members of the opposition.  What is more, despite assurances from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the local NGO Participación Ciudadana that the final vote closely aligned to their internal quick counts, a number of opposition voices maintain that there was electoral fraud. There are more challenges:

  • In the National Assembly, Moreno and his party won 54 percent of the seats (74 of 137) with just 39 percent of popular support due to clever districting and a seat allocation formula that favors large parties. Although this provides for unified government in a constitutional environment that can harshly penalize legislative gridlock, it is also disproportional to the popular support for the party.
  • Moreover, Moreno’s majority may also be more illusory than it appears. As many as 24 of Alianza PAIS’s 74 legislators, 32 percent of the movement’s total seats, were elected via electoral alliance between PAIS and a different party: seven from the Ecuadorian Socialist Party and the remainder from a panoply of inchoate provincial-level movements.  These legislators’ support for PAIS is not guaranteed.

Maintaining his heterogeneous alliance in a country with notoriously high levels of party switching will require a great deal of negotiating skill and flexibility of the inexperienced Moreno.  He possesses limited policymaking options to confront an unviable fiscal situation – the deficit doubled in 2016 – and economic slowdown – according to the IMF, the economy contracted by 2.2 percent in 2016 and is expected to decrease by an additional 1.6 percent in 2017 – and an overvalued currency in real terms.  The Moreno administration confronts the unenviable task of continuing and even expanding an economically costly political project in the midst of fiscal constraints, a fragile political majority, and a limited popular mandate among deep social divisions.  Less daunting situations have felled more experienced leaders in Ecuador’s history.

May 8, 2017

*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.

A Post-Correa Ecuador?

By Catherine Conaghan*

Photo Credit: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr / Creative Commons

What seemed like a certainty less than a year ago – Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa as a shoo-in for reelection in 2017 – now has given way to competing scenarios as the country’s economic crisis deepens.  The game-changer has been the collapse in revenues from Ecuador’s principal export: petroleum.  With prices for Ecuadorian crude hovering 50 percent below their 2014 average, Correa has had little choice but to slash the abundant government spending that has been the hallmark of his presidency.  Ecuador’s use of the U.S. dollar greatly handicaps its capacity to adjust.  Further aggravating the recession is the economic downturn of Ecuador’s principal external lender, China.  Over $2 billion have been cut from the 2015 budget, and plans to shrink the size of the public bureaucracy are now under way.  His decision in April to suspend the central government’s obligatory payments to the national social security system stoked anxiety about the fund’s future, and an announcement in June of plans to hike taxes on inheritance and real estate transactions sparked street demonstrations around the country.  Indigenous and labor organizations mobilized in mid-August to protest these and other aspects of Correa’s style of governing.  An estimated crowd of 100,000 people marched in Quito.  Scores of protestors were detained and face charges related to the August mobilizations.

The months ahead will not be easy for a president accustomed to buoyant budgets and strong polls.  As one of Latin America’s left-turn leaders, he pushed a state-centric economic model under which poverty declined and the middle class grew.  His approval ratings since he took office in 2007 consistently scored among the highest of any Latin American president.  (They dipped below 50 percent – as low as 42 percent – for the first time in 2015.)  While Correa waxes and wanes on whether he really will pursue reelection, his party is pushing to amend the Constitution through legislation – without a referendum supported by over 80 percent of the public – to allow him a third term.  The opposition strenuously opposes the move.  The National Assembly appears headed toward a final vote on the matter in December.

From now until December, the reelection maneuvering and two possible outcomes will dominate conversations.  Under one scenario, Correa and Alianza País will push ahead with the amendment, ignoring negative public reaction and repressing protests if necessary, and Correa will decide on his candidacy depending on his view of the economy and the state of the opposition.  In a second and perhaps less likely scenario, Correa and his party may just abandon the reelection plan, concluding that the political costs are just too high.  This would set off power struggles within Alianza País over who would head the ticket.  Among the prospective frontrunners are former Vice President Lenín Moreno, current Vice President Jorge Glas, Production Minister (and former Ambassador to the United States) Nathalie Cely, and former Industry Minister-turned-critic Ramiro González.  In the process, Correa will be looking to anoint someone loyal and capable of governing the country until he can return as a candidate in 2021.  Under both of these scenarios, Ecuador is bracing for a volatile year ahead.  Natural disasters – a possible volcanic eruption of Mount Cotopaxi and El Niño – could also fuel uncertainty, giving Correa a chance to shine and rally, or to fail and deepen doubts about his leadership.  After eight years of relative political stability and economic good times, Ecuadorians are pondering whether a post-Correa era could be at hand and what it would mean.

September 8, 2015

* Catherine Conaghan is the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Latin American Politics at Canada’s Queen’s University and a former CLALS Research Fellow.