Argentina: Excessive Optimism?

By Nicolás Comini*

Man delivers a speech on an airfield.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri. / Cancillería del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Argentine President Macri’s Cambiemos coalition won an overwhelming victory in last month’s legislative elections – a step toward fulfilling his 2015 promise of a “revolution of joy” – but it’s not clear yet whether the administration’s optimism translates into national hope.  The coalition won in 15 of the 24 provinces of the country, including the five largest jurisdictions – the City of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Mendoza, and Santa Fe.  Government officials and Macri’s supporters have expressed optimism that the economy will turn around and political confrontation will be overcome.  Macri won the presidency in 2015 with an alliance that made optimism – and the appearance of optimism – a central theme for overcoming what he called the polarization generated by his predecessor, former President Cristina Fernández.  His discourse was rooted in the ideas of change, happiness, efficiency, and meritocracy.

  • Even critics acknowledge that the government has generated innovation in terms of political discourse and representation, rooted in a greater horizontality of leadership and greater citizen access to public officials. News of some officials’ questionable business practices as revealed in the “Panama Papers” and “Paradise Papers” has caused little or no backlash.  Second, the idea of “normalization” of the country, supported by the media, has had a positive impact on part of society.  GDP growth at almost 3 percent this year and the lifting of exchange controls and imports have also buttressed this theme.  The unfavorable trade balance, with a deficit of US$765 million in 2017, has not been a factor.  Third, the government is still able to blame the country’s problems – including high levels of inflation and indebtedness – on the “received inheritance” from his predecessors, whose rule implied corruption, social polarization, and isolation from the world.
  • Rejection of the legacy of Cristina Fernández and her husband/predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, also seems to be one of the Macri government’s greatest assets. Even though Cristina is the most popular candidate in the opposition, her rejection among the broader population is greater; many of the votes that the government’s allies garnered were “anti-Kirchner” votes.  Cristina won a seat in the Senate, but in national politics, there’s a growing sentiment of “anyone but Cristina,” while a civil war simmers within the ranks of her Peronista base.  The political rise of Macri ally María Eugenia Vidal as governor of the Province of Buenos Aires – historic bastion of Peronismo and the country’s main electoral district – attests to these troubles.

Macri’s gains indicate a significant strengthening of the government, which is key to the reform package that the administration launched almost immediately after the election.  Proposals include aggressive changes in tax and labor matters.  While the tax reform has triggered battles with some large corporations, such as Coca-Cola, that will pay higher taxes, the labor reform has broad support from employers.  The latter faces strong resistance from a large part of society and, above all, of the union and opposition sectors, who fear that it, similar to one already carried out in Brazil, will contribute to job insecurity.  Macri’s increasingly forceful discourse on reducing public employment has also raised concerns despite his assurances that reducing state structures will help create private-sector jobs.

British theorist Terry Eagleton has said that an optimist is someone who thinks that things will improve even if there are no reasons for it.  The optimism of the government and its supporters is as easy to understand – there are some clear reasons for it – as it is palpable.  Macri has a strong government in a Latin America plagued by weak governments.  He not only has power in parliament; the country’s large corporations, mass media, security forces and, of course, an important part of the people are also behind him.  But Argentina is accustomed to living in cycles.  Expecting that in Argentina one or two or even three electoral victories will produce a durable revolution and fundamentally change those cycles, as the current government’s rhetoric suggests, may not be warranted by the facts.  Each administration usually assumes that the previous one did things absolutely wrong, and they will do better this time.  But this kind of impulse has an expiration date.  Joy and good vibes can have a positive impact on a society’s feelings about itself, but a real lasting solution will require addressing the underlying causes of the country’s polarization, poverty, and exclusion.  This implies, above all, state policies and continuity through different administrations.

November 15, 2017

* Nicolás Comini is Director of the Bachelor and Master Programs in International Relations at the Universidad del Salvador (Buenos Aires) and Professor at the New York University-Buenos Aires. He was Research Fellow at CLALS.

Chile: Election Likely to Show Big Political Shifts

By Kenneth Roberts and Eduardo Silva*

A presidential candidate stands in front of a crowd and a large Chilean flag

Ex-president Sebastián Piñera addresses his supporters at a campaign rally last month. / Twitter: @sebastianpinera

Chilean politics in the run-up to national presidential and legislative elections on November 19 have revealed that – within major lines of continuity – significant changes in the political alignments that have structured the country’s democracy since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990 are taking place.

  • Continuity is most pronounced on the conservative side of the political spectrum, where the two main conservative parties, Renovación Nacional (RN) and Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI), have joined forces with smaller parties to sponsor the presidential candidacy of billionaire business mogul and former President Sebastián Piñera. In public opinion surveys of voter intentions, Piñera has maintained a healthy lead over a collection of centrist and leftist candidates.  He appears likely to come out on top in the first round of voting – and significant abstention (if fewer than 5.5 million registered voters vote) could push him over the top.  If he is forced into a run-off, the final outcome will rest heavily on the ability of his opponents in the divided center-left bloc to coalesce forces.
  • The center-left space is where most change is concentrated. The core parties in the Nueva Mayoría coalition that backed incumbent Socialist President Michelle Bachelet have won five of Chile’s six presidential elections since the transition to democracy in 1990.  For the first time, however, the main centrist party, the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC), has opted out of the alliance to run its own candidate, Senator Carolina Goic.  With Goic languishing in the polls, however, the primary challengers to Piñera are located further to the left, including the Nueva Mayoría’s favorite, Senator Alejandro Guillier.  Although early speculation pegged him as an outsider, he is now firmly identified with the moderate reformist left and represents continuity with the current government.

A new left-leaning group, the Frente Amplio, has nominated Beatriz Sánchez, an independent journalist.  She arguably represents a larger challenge to the status quo, as her candidacy gives political expression to social actors who are sharply critical of Chile’s political establishment and the neoliberal economic model.  Even though the Broad Front’s electoral strength is untested, it brings together a number of small parties alienated from Nueva Mayoría and inspired by Chile’s massive student protest movement and other activist networks that have mobilized around labor, environmental, and pension reform issues in recent years.  Sánchez favors more redistributive taxation and greater state intervention in strategic enterprises and utilities, as well as in water property rights and forestry where social conflict has been high.  She is also for replacing the private pensions system with a mixed public-private one and getting private banking out of the student loan business.

This election will likely show that the broad center-left coalition that dominated Chilean politics since the 1990 transition has effectively splintered, with the Christian Democrats seeking to carve out an independent space in the political center and a movement-based alternative emerging on the mainstream parties’ left flank.  Uniting such disparate forces to compete against Piñera in a run-off election, should one be required, will clearly be a formidable task.  Nueva Mayoría candidate Alejandro Guillier, considered the strongest run-off candidate to take on Piñera, is already in conversation with Christian Democrats and Sánchez’s Frente Amplio.  In a run-off, he is thought likely to get around 60 percent of the Christian Democratic vote, with more conservative Christian Democrats voting for Piñera.  His appeal to Frente Amplio voters could suffer because of their unhappiness with Nueva Mayoría.

  •  The specter of high abstention looms large for second-round voting, too. President Bachelet’s low approval ratings for most of her second term in office, although recently reversed, signaled low enthusiasm despite her successful pushing through a series of major reforms, including a reform of the electoral law to enhance proportional representation, a tax reform to increase revenues for social programs, the initiation of free university education for low-income students, and a much-debated law to legalize abortions in limited circumstances.  Last, but not least, mainstream parties across the board have been weakened by a series of corruption and campaign finance scandals, leaving many citizens alienated from parties.

November 2, 2017

*Eduardo Silva is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government at Cornell University.

The Brazilian Roller Coaster … Still Heading Down

By Fábio Kerche*

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Rodrigo Maia (center), Speaker of the House of Representatives, gives an interview to the Brazilian press. If President Temer loses the House, Maia may replace him as President.

The political situation in Brazil is dramatic and shows no prospect of improving in the short term.  The Supreme Court has received an indictment against President Michel Temer on corruption charges.  A close adviser of his was caught on video receiving money in a suitcase.  The Chief Prosecutor, who had been playing a minor role in the anti-corruption Car Wash Operation, saw an opportunity to grab the limelight.  Rede Globo, Brazil’s most powerful media group, made Temer’s fall from power seem likely in a matter of days.

  • But Temer did not surrender. As Supreme Court action against a president must be authorized by the House of Representatives, the battle turned to Parliament.  Using means denounced as unethical, such as giving administration positions to people appointed by congressmen, the President won the first round in the committee with jurisdiction over the case.  The next step, in August, will be a full House vote, which could reverse the committee decision.

Regardless of the outcome of House proceedings, political turmoil appears certain to continue – and Temer’s conservative policies will continue to aggravate social divisions.  If Temer loses and the House gives a green light to a Supreme Court investigation, the Constitution foresees that he must be removed from the presidency during the trial (for up to 180 days) – with little chance of regaining the post, according to analysts.  In this scenario, his most likely successor would be Rodrigo Maia, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a member of a small right-wing party that supported the military dictatorship.  He has little experience in electoral terms; many attribute his victories in legislative elections to the reputation of his father, a former mayor of Rio de Janeiro.  His attempt to run for the executive branch in Rio de Janeiro, a more difficult kind of election than for the Congress, proved to be a huge failure.  He is signaling that he would keep Temer’s conservative economic team and continue an agenda that cuts workers’ rights – proposals that are music to the market’s ears but likely to further rile opponents.

  • An alternative pushed by social movements – a constitutional amendment calling for direct elections right now – would seem to offer a chance for Brazil to break its downward spiral. Protesters show little sign, however, of breaking the roadblocks that the mainstream press has created against the proposal.  The popular mobilizations involve thousands of people but are having little resonance on television, in newspapers, and on websites.  The government, press, and market do not wish to delegate to citizens the right to choose their president, at least not now.

By default, general elections scheduled for October 2018 still appear to be the country’s best hope for putting democracy on track again.  The chance that the elections will end the crisis will be undermined, however, if former President Lula da Silva is barred from running.  Convicted of corruption in a process that many observers claim lacked evidence, the matter is now in the court’s hands.  If the conviction is confirmed, the legitimacy of the elections will be in jeopardy.  Brazil’s political institutions will be further weakened as confidence in election results will plummet –more than in a healthy democracy – and the democratic game itself, as expression of popular rights and will, will be threatened.  There is no hope of improvement in the short term.  The impeachment without a crime of former President Dilma Rousseff continues to take its toll.

July 31, 2017

* Fábio Kerche is a Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, Rio de Janeiro, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.

Brazil: The Day after Temer

By Marcio Cunha Filho*

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Demonstrators in São Paulo demanded the resignation of Brazilian President Temer on May 17, 2017. / Mídia NINJA / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s political turmoil has reached new heights with the leaking of audio recordings of President Temer allegedly authorizing bribes to prevent the former Speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha, from concluding a plea bargain arrangement with investigators.  Although the recordings were inconclusive and Temer alleges that they were fabricated, their emergence was enough to push an already fragile government to the verge of collapse in less than 24 hours.  The day after the leak, according to press reports, four of Temer’s ministers were already discussing his replacement at a closed meeting with current Speaker of the House Rodrigo Maia, who is the next in line for succession. Some parties, such as the PPS, have already left Temer’s coalition. The PSDB, Brazil’s largest center-right party and Temer’s main coalition partner, is also discussing a possible withdrawal from government.  (The party’s former President and one of Temer’s closest allies, Senator Aécio Neves, was removed from office by a Supreme Court decision as part of Operation Car Wash.  (See here and here for previous articles about the Lava Jato investigations.)

  • Temer has denied the possibility of resigning, but there are a few ways he could be forcefully removed from office. Most observers argue that, however he departs, the Constitution would require his successor to be indirectly elected by Congress within 30 days.  Others posit, however, that if the Superior Electoral Court condemns Dilma and Temer together for illicit funding in the 2014 Presidential campaign – the trial is in early June and is likely to be the fastest possible way to remove Temer – then the electoral code dictates that new direct popular elections be held (as long as annulment is not declared within the last six months of their term, which ends in December 2018).
  • Key political actors seem to be favoring the scenario in which Congress indirectly elects the successor. Although very fragmented, the Brazilian Congress is mostly conservative or right-leaning, and many of its members fear that former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who polls currently indicate would easily defeat any other candidate, might be elected in a popular election.

In this context, indirect election would put Brazil’s political system on the very edge of legality.  During a similar crisis in 1964, Congress’s ousted left-wing acting Vice President João Goulart and elected another itself, without popular approval, in an act almost universally seen today as illegal.  That act ended up throwing Brazil into a violent military dictatorship that lasted for more than two decades.  In the current political crisis, if Congress were to act against the current rules of the electoral code and without popular approval, this could again be another step towards the establishment of an illegal regime, which could further curtail accountability and democratic mechanisms in the country.  Placing the destiny of the country in the hands of a Congress, with many of its members under investigation themselves, might be a mistake with profound consequences.  Popular elections would also entail great uncertainty as well, but the uncertainty of elections is an inherent element of democratic systems.  When political actors try to limit or manipulate electoral outcomes in the name of predictability or security, this is when democracy dies.

May 19, 2017

* Marcio Cunha Filho is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brasília; federal auditor in Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General; and CLALS Research Fellow.

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.

Chile: Has the Center-Left Really Turned the Page?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

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By choosing to support Presidential candidate Alejandro Guillier, the Chilean Socialist Party is turning the page on its ideological platform. / Movilh Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Chilean Socialist Party’s rejection of former President and party standard-bearer Ricardo Lagos as its candidate in the Presidential election scheduled for November signals a break with the political program and leadership that it has offered since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.  But the center-left still has a lot to do to sustain its base going into the future.  In a secret vote – a process that caused heated discussions and revealed deep divisions between factions of the party – the Central Committee decided to support political newcomer Senator Alejandro Guillier.  Already the decision to choose the candidate through a closed-door voting by the leadership, instead of a general consultation as wanted by the party’s constituency, prompted José Miguel Insulza (another historic party figure and former Secretary General of the OAS) to withdraw his own candidacy.

  • The preference for Guillier, a well-known journalist and non-militant of the Socialist Party (PS), has an obvious explanation: the polls. While Guillier ranks second in the polls just behind the center-right candidate – billionaire former President Sebastián Piñera – Lagos remained stuck beneath the threshold of 5 percent. The PS decision cannot be reduced to mere pragmatism, however.  Lagos represented continuity with the generation that has represented the center-left since the restoration of democracy, based on market friendly policies with social redistribution.  Much of its base has grown disillusioned by the pace of redistribution, however, and combined with dismay over signs of corruption –modest in scale by regional standards but politically embarrassing to the party and to incumbent President Michelle Bachelet – that disenchantment jeopardizes PS prospects moving forward.  By following the polls and choosing Guillier, the PS is turning the page of the transition to democracy period.

But the PS may be abandoning its previous ideological platform without a clear idea of what is going to be the new one.  The ideological and programmatic orientations behind Guillier’s candidacy are unclear.  To become the single candidate of the center-left, moreover, Guillier will probably need to compete in primary elections against the candidate of the Christian Democrats.  Whoever emerges from that process will compete in November against two rather well defined ideological positions.

  • The right-wing candidate, Sebastián Piñera, offers a program oriented to undo the progressive reforms undertaken by the Bachelet government, such as reforms of the tax, pension, and education systems. Polls suggest that this program of “neoliberal restoration” may attract centrist voters who, skeptical of the political and social changes associated with those reforms, may prove receptive to Piñera’s contention that they are the cause of a recent slowdown in economic growth and tightening of the labor market.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, the leftist coalition Frente Amplio strives to enhance and deepen the reforms; expand social rights and redistribution; and reduce the role of markets, particularly in the educational sector and retirement pensions. In a strategic move, Frente Amplio chose a charismatic journalist (and former radio colleague of Guillier), Beatriz Sánchez, as its candidate.  According to polls, she is already attracting support from prospective voters who Guillier would need in order to become Chile’s next President.

In selecting Guillier, the center-left is acknowledging the exhaustion of its base with the generation that led the Chilean transition to democracy.  Disillusion is particularly deep among younger Chileans who must be a critical foundation for any enduring project of social reform.  Party stalwarts like Lagos and Insulza represent precisely the wrong message in that context.  But if the center-left is clearly trying to turn the page, to succeed it must define its post-transition programmatic platform — or risk being relegated for the first time since Allende’s Unidad Popular to be the third political force after a united right and a united left.

April 20, 2017

Stefano Palestini Céspedes is CLALS Research Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he specializes in international organizations and regional governance.

Latin America: Wait-and-See Reaction to Trump – For Now

By Catie Prechtel and Carlos Díaz Barriga*

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An effigy of Donald Trump in Mexico City. / Sequence News Media / Daniel Becerril / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Most Latin American leaders publicly reacted with caution to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s victory in last week’s U.S. elections, but reactions will sharpen quickly if Trump tries to make his campaign rhetoric about the region and Latino immigrants into policy.  Mexico and Central America showed clear anxiety over the implications for their economies and regional migration pressures.  Some South American presidents expressed mild enthusiasm and voiced hope for a positive relationship with the new administration, although Trump’s avowed opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord – under discussion at the APEC summit in Lima this week – has fueled concerns about the future of free trade.  Fear that the new U.S. President, who takes office on January 20, will deport millions of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America and force U.S. firms to shut factories in those countries has seized the media there.

  • Mexican newspapers headlines screamed “Be afraid!” and warned of a “Global shakedown.” Reports recited the many promises Trump had made against Mexico, including his proposal to build a border wall (and make Mexico pay for it); revising NAFTA and raising taxes on Mexican imports, putting conditions on remittances, and charging more for visas. The peso suffered three consecutive days of losses before recovering slightly following interviews by Trump and his team suggesting a softer stand on the wall and free trade.  President Peña Nieto phoned Trump with congratulations and agreed to meet soon to discuss bilateral issues, including presumably the wall.
  • Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reported businessmen are worried Trump’s rejection of free trade could have a direct impact on the economy and described the possible mass deportations as a “social bomb” for the country. In Nicaragua, newspapers speculated that Trump’s victory will give a boost to U.S. legislation, the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), which calls for economic sanctions if President Daniel Ortega doesn’t take “effective steps” to hold free and fair elections.  In El Salvador, the main concern is the deep economic stresses of mass deportations of Salvadorans in the United States.  Honduras shares those concerns but apparently was more wrapped up in President Juan Orlando Hernández’s announcement confirming his intention to make a controversial bid for reelection.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, often given to bombastic rhetoric, has focused on working with Washington in the closing months of the Obama Administration. In a phone conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry, he stressed the need to establish an agenda with the next administration that favors bilateral relationships, but he specifically called on Obama to “leave office with a message of peace for Venezuela” and rescind a determination that Venezuela is a “threat to the United States.” Obama himself last April said the designation was exaggerated.
  • Media in Colombia speculated that Trump will be less committed to aid and support for finalizing and implementing a peace accord with the FARC. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile offered calm reactions to the news.  For Buenos Aires and Santiago, the biggest concern was potentially strained commercial relationships and free trade agreements with the United States, according to press reports.  Brazil offered little reaction to the news, but Trump’s win brought four consecutive days of losses for the real – weakening 7.6 percent since the election.

The political leaders’ cautious reactions conceal a broad and deep rejection for President-elect Trump’s values and intentions as he stated them during the campaign.  Former Mexican President Vicente Fox once again tweeted his disapproval for Trump, while José Mujica, former President of Uruguay, expressed dismay on Twitter, summing up the situation in one word: “Help!”  Press reports and anecdotal information indicate, moreover, that large segments of Latin American society have shown a widespread distaste for Trump’s win.  Their general wait-and-see attitude will end when and if Trump proves himself the unpredictable and reactionary he seemed on the campaign trail.  Latin American leaders have a lot of work ahead as they navigate a new relationship with the United States.

November 15, 2016

* Catie Prechtel and Carlos Díaz Barriga are CLALS Graduate Assistants.

Ecuador Elections: Four More Years for Correa?

Photo by: Rinaldo Wurglitsch “Rinaldo W.” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Like him or not, President Rafael Correa has done what few recent Ecuadorean presidents have done – complete a term in office.  When he announced on November 10 his intent to run for re-election, observers in and outside Ecuador immediately declared him the favorite.  (Correa ran a second time in 2009, without completing his first term, under the rules of a new Constitution.)  Such predictions make it easy to forget how uncertain Correa’s presidency looked when he started it in 2007 – as a 43-year-old, U.S.-educated economist – and how few expected him to succeed.  In the ten years prior, social movements led by workers and indigenous peoples toppled a succession of seven presidents.  Rejection of IMF-led reforms had been both deep and broad in Ecuador, and it was hard for a president to complete a year, let alone a term.

High oil prices have helped Correa succeed by facilitating visible public spending, but that is not the whole story.  By almost all accounts, Correa has been far from perfect – his treatment of the press has particularly troubled rights experts – but he has provided some stability and halted the cycle of mass protests, strikes, and presidential turnover.  With a blend of economic populism and nationalist rhetoric, Correa has turned the same social movements that were once the scourge of Ecuadorean presidents into a base of support.  He has incorporated formerly marginalized people into the “nation” that he claims to defend – what academic Steven Ellner called “a new narrative of nationhood that challenges long-held assumptions.”  He has unified policies such as ending the U.S. lease of the Manta airbase with resource-based economic nationalism.

Though Correa’s reelection next February 17 looks easy, he will face increased tensions in his third term.  Government revenues remain dependent on oil and mining, which are susceptible to price fluctuations.  The expansion of extractive activities in areas inhabited by Correa’s indigenous base could strain his coalition – it has already stirred environmental concerns – and government spending has neglected the need to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on the extractive industry.  In addition, Correa has benefited from the generosity of Venezuela, but that support could wane as President Hugo Chávez turns inward to deal with domestic challenges.  The opposition, which has continued to present half a dozen candidates for the presidency, will likely begin to unify if it feels threatened by a further concentration of power in the Executive.  To win reelection and govern effectively, Correa will need to maintain the unity of an uneasy coalition, without riding roughshod over the opposition and press freedom.