On February 23, Ecuador held important elections for mayors and regional governments. President Rafael Correa’s ruling coalition, Alianza País, retained control of the majority of Ecuador’s municipalities, but lost in the country’s major cities of Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil. César Montúfar, a former member of the Ecuadorian Congress, President of Movimiento Concertación, and Director of the Global and Social Studies program at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolivar in Quito, interpreted the election results and discussed their implications for Ecuador’s political future when he spoke at the Dialogue on Thursday, April 10.
According to Montúfar, although opposition victories in three major cities are politically and symbolically significant, the defeat of Alianza País does not necessarily signal defeat for President Correa, whose approval rating stands at 62% according to recent polls. His government fares even better, with 87% of Ecuadorians deeming its performance “good” or “very good.” The president’s party remains the most important political movement in Ecuador despite the election results, claimed Montúfar. Furthermore, President Correa retains the power of the executive branch in a hyper-presidential political system. Indeed, Montúfar asserted that the president’s influence, enveloping the central government, municipalities, and electoral bodies, remains strong. Opposition forces, despite winning key seats, lack the unity and leadership necessary to effectively challenge Correa’s government. Although the results demonstrate the president’s varying levels of influence, extrapolating local results to diagnose Ecuador’s national political climate could be misleading, cautioned Montúfar.
The election results may not signal defeat for correísmo, but do have implications for Ecuador’s political landscape, acknowledged Montúfar. First, Mauricio Rodas’s victory as mayor of Quito signifies the emergence of a new political party, Sociedad Unida Más Acción (SUMA), which identifies neither with Alianza País nor the opposition. Montúfar anticipates that Rodas and SUMA will “swing between collaboration and opposition depending on the circumstances,” maintaining a pragmatic, rather than ideological, approach to dealing with President Correa. Second, although opposition parties have expanded their representation, they cannot declare absolute victory. According to Montúfar, the legislature’s composition leading up to the elections, with Alianza País over-represented, did not accurately reflect popular preferences. In the February elections, however, “real popular preferences reappeared.” Third, for Montúfar, Ecuador’s traditional opposition parties are the clear losers. The country’s old party system has collapsed, but a “new and institutionalized party system, besides caudillismo and personalismo,” has yet to emerge.
In addition, Montúfar identified possible developments that could impact and challenge Correa’s government. First, he noted that the defeat of Alianza País candidates brings electoral uncertainty. Once able to assume victory, Correa’s political movement cannot guarantee it will retain the presidency in Ecuador’s 2017 election. Moreover, with Alianza País a de-institutionalized party based solely on the president, Correa is the movement’s only leader and potential presidential candidate. Ecuador’s 2008 constitution prohibits a third presidential reelection, but Alianza País may pursue constitutional reform to ensure it remains in power after 2017. According to Montúfar, such an effort will have political implications for Correa, who has repeatedly stated he will not seek reelection. Second, Montúfar expects economic challenges for Correa’s administration in the coming years. Ecuador’s foreign direct investment lags behind its neighbors and the country’s private sector growth has stalled due to economic policies that prioritize the public sector. Third, issues such as large-scale mining in indigenous communities could reignite social protest and resistance of organized groups to state policies, according to Montúfar. The Yasuní referendum, which could take place by the end of this year, may signal an “electoral exam for the government at the national level.”
To conclude, Montúfar discussed the current state and possible future of Ecuador’s party system. With caudillismo and personalismo continuing to define the country’s politics, Ecuadorian political movements are “electoral vehicles that sponsor local caudillos, of any ideology” rather than “ideological and stable structures.” Correa and his Revolución Ciudadana have not achieved political change, Montúfar contended. Ecuadorian politics after correísmo, therefore, will likely resemble those that preceded Correa. For Montúfar, the tragedy of the president’s movement may be the lack of a political structure equipped to fulfill his program; Correa’s anti-party discourse may have dismantled the very party structure indispensible for carrying out a long-term political project.
While many talk about the return of the right in Latin America, Rafael Correa’s “citizen revolution” won another term in office: former vice president Lenín Moreno will rule until 2021 after defeating former banker Guillermo Lasso in a close second round vote. Although the opposition candidate denounced electoral fraud, other Latin American governments, as well as the observation mission of the Organization of American States (OAS), have recognized the results. On May 24, then, Correa will hand his chosen successor the presidency and a series of challenges: economic decline, social polarization and (less urgent) a foreign policy in need of some adjustments.
On February 12, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted César Montúfar for an open discussion, moderated by Michael Shifter, about Ecuador’s current political climate. Montúfar is an academic, former member of Congress, a prominent political analyst, and the primary accuser in a recent trial against former vice-president Jorge Glas.