Ecuador: protest and power

Guy Hedgecoe
28 November 2006

Rafael Correa's emphatic victory in Ecuador's presidential election run-off on 26 November 2006 appears to have given the region's radical leftist alliance - led by Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba - a new member. However, the combative platform of this latest Andean firebrand is likely to make for a particularly conflictive period in an already unstable country.

Correa, a 43-year-old economist, will be Ecuador's eighth president in a decade. With 95% of the ballots counted, Correa has won 57.2% of the vote, compared to the 42.8% of his rival, the banana magnate Álvaro Noboa.

"The fight has been long and intense, it's been the fight between David and Goliath, and history has repeated itself, because David has won", said Correa, before voting began and the scale of his victory had become apparent.

For much of the bitterly fought run-off campaign, polls showed Noboa heading for a comfortable win, casting his opponent in the role of extremist. Noboa used Correa's aggressive demand for political upheaval to portray the members of his Alianza País movement as "the most extreme element of the left...who want insurrection and civil war".

Noboa sought to present himself in a contrasting light: as a benevolent, Father Christmas-type character, handing out cheques, computers and wheelchairs to poor villages. His few concrete policies focused on improving political and economic ties with the United States and using his wealth to encourage investment.

Guy Hedgecoe is editor of the English-language edition of El Pais. He founded and edited the Ecuador Focusweekly bulletin, and reported the Andean region from Ecuador for CNN, National Public Radio, the Miami Herald and the Financial Times

Also by Guy Hedgecoe on openDemocracy:

"Losing Ecuador" (26 April 2005)

"Ecuador's energy-fuelled politics " (28 June 2006)

"Ecuador's election surprise " (17 October 2006)

Correa responded to Noboa's challenge, and to flagging poll numbers, by adapting his tactics and tempering his more radical instincts. The native of Guayaquil, who was virtually unknown prior to his four-month spell as economy minister in 2005, started competing with Noboa for the role of benefactor, pledging jobs and houses alongside his proposed political reform. With his good looks, forceful charisma and eloquence, Correa looked every bit the natural campaigner. As the more awkward Noboa - who had already lost in the second round of presidential elections in 1998 and 2002 - began to see his lead slipping, he visibly panicked, scaring voters with his increasingly dramatic claim to be "God's candidate".

Correa, who was already politically dominant in the sierra highland region, also managed a reasonable performance along the coast, usually the stronghold of Noboa.

After victory

The scale of Correa's win has quietened concerns - generated by both candidates before the result - that the loser would first refuse to accept the voters' verdict, then lead a divisive campaign resembling Andrés Manuel López Obrador's in Mexico. However, the president-elect's four-year tenure, which begins on 15 January 2007, promises to be anything but smooth.

Early results from the second round showed that up to 10% of votes had been spoiled by Ecuadorian voters who refused to sponsor either of two populists from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Correa's relatively low first-round vote - about 23% - showed that even if he did turn out to be the eventual winner, he would not have the majority of the country behind him the way that Venezuela's Hugo Chávez did when he registered his 1998 landslide.

In addition, Correa's entire campaign has played on his credentials as a nationalist, anti-establishment outsider. "95% of Ecuadorians say that they don't feel represented by congress", he said during the campaign. "And if you accept that our congress is supposedly the highest representative of a democracy and yet doesn't represent anybody, then Ecuador needs a profound reform."

In Correa's plan, that proposed reform would start with a referendum seeking the approval of the establishment of a constituent assembly made up of ordinary citizens, which would draw up a new constitution. This idea, which critics say is itself unconstitutional, is the centrepiece of the "civic revolution" that Correa has promised to instigate.

Throughout his campaign, Correa reinforced his image as the enemy of the corrupt oligarchy by swinging his belt above his head and shouting "Give 'em the lash!" (correa means "belt"). But more riskily - or foolishly, according to sceptics - he has backed up his anti-establishment rhetoric by refusing to present a single candidate for congress. Correa's presidency, therefore, will depend enormously on his ability to mobilise the general populace.

One group whose support Correa will undoubtedly need is the traditionally leftist indigenous movement. Correa, a mixed-blood mestizo who speaks Quechua, the Indian language, was nearly chosen as the candidate of the indigenous party Pachakutik, but fell out with senior Indian figures prior to the first round. However, his overtly leftwing stance - a clear contrast with Noboa's conservative, tycoon status - made him the obvious candidate for the Indians to back in the run-off.

This gives him a formidable ally. Intense but relatively peaceful protests led by Indians in Quito helped to unseat two recent Ecuadorian presidents, Jamil Mahuad (2000) and Lucio Gutiérrez (2005). But the power of Ecuador's indigenous movement is limited to a great extent to preventing policy through protest, rather than shaping it through debate. Indians make up over 40% of the population, but Pachakutik has only a handful of deputies in congress and an Indian has never been head of state or government (in contrast to Bolivia, where Evo Morales was inaugurated as president in January 2006).

"We're still one of the country's main forces. But since [Ecuador's Indian confederation] was created in 1986 we haven't managed to build a lasting political platform", one indigenous leader, Auki Tituaña, told Spain's El País newspaper. "Ecuador isn't Bolivia. The movement's senior figures don't talk to the grassroots any more."

The Indians' closest brush with power came during the government of Lucio Gutiérrez, a former army officer and coup leader whose rebellious credentials masked a deeply conservative streak and who fell out with Pachakutik a few months into his short-lived term. The indigenous movement will therefore be wary of this latest non-Indian maverick, but nonetheless is likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"The Indians are going to support Correa at the start, at least", says Simón Pachano, a sociologist from the Facultad Latino Americana de Ciencias Socialies (Flacso) institute. "His government is going to have major clashes with the political right, so all the left-leaning groups are likely to close ranks and support him."

Also in openDemocracy on a month in Latin America:

Arthur Ituassu, "Welcome to politics, Brazil" (1 November 2006)

Sergio Ramírez,"Daniel Ortega's second coming" (7 November 2006)

John Crabtree, "Peru: outing the NGOs " (22 November 2006)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: on the volcano" (24 November 2006)

Andean faultline

Correa's relations with the United States are likely to be more strained. In addition to openly mulling a default on the country's $11 million foreign public debt, the incoming president has made three pledges that more or less explicitly challenge US interests in the country: to close the US military base in Manta on Ecuador's coast, to refuse to sign a bilateral trade deal, and to reduce the profits of international energy firms operating in the oil-rich Amazon region.

No wonder, then, that news of Correa's victory spooked Wall Street and led to a sharp decline in the Andean country's bonds. The disdain of Correa (who studied economy at the University of Illinois) for the effects of the so-called Washington consensus of the 1990s, is overt; he has frequently attacked what he calls "the long dark night of neo-liberalism", scorned the IMF as "an incompetent and arrogant bureaucracy", and called President Bush "tremendously dim-witted".

If it is sustained, this kind of discourse is likely to place an Ecuador led by Rafael Correa in the company of the region's more radical leftwing administrations (such as Venezuela and Bolivia) rather than the more moderate, social-democratic ones (such as Brazil and Chile). Hugo Chávez, vocal champion of the anti-US "axis of good", for the most part avoided open involvement in Ecuador's election campaign - though he did label Noboa "an exploiter of child labour", while Correa, who has visited Chávez's home, claimed him as a friend. The Venezuelan leader, fresh from seeing his Nicaraguan ally Daniel Ortega triumph in elections there on 5 November, may have learned from the way his meddling in Peru and Mexico turned some voters against his anointed candidates.

Ecuador's president-elect has staked his political career on destroying a corrupt, unpopular, but powerful system, so taking a moderate approach is not a viable option for him. His first cabinet appointments would appear to bear this out, with several radical intellectuals already named in key posts. Moreover, his lack of allies in congress - where the largest blocs are those loyal to Noboa and Gutiérrez - may further encourage him to bypass established institutions and set a bold course.

Rafael Correa, a man who describes himself as "a humanist, leftist Christian", has registered a major achievement by giving his electoral rival a whipping. But giving the political elite "the lash" will be a much bigger challenge, and one that has proved beyond more than one of his predecessors.

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