Ecuador’s former president, Rafael Correa, was elected three times with over 55% of the vote in 2006, 2009 and 2013. Correa’s Alianza Pais (AP) party has dominated parliament for quite a long time. Though credited by many with delivering economic stability to the country, he has likewise been scrutinized for reforms that have consolidated executive power (changed the country’s constitution to allow for unlimited years in office) and silenced his opposition (introduced the Organic Law on Communication: LOC). Gradual changes in democratic institutions and the erosion of checks and balances resulted in a government that was fully controlled by Correa’s AP party. For the first time in ten years, a new person took on the presidency: Lenin Moreno. It is crucial to note that although Correa finally stepped down from office, political power was not meant to be truly transferred as Moreno was hand-picked by his predecessor. In the midst of a recent election and the passing of a referendum presented by Moreno Ecuador’s democracy is still eroding as highlighted by increased polarization, weakening of electoral institutions, and stagnation in freedom of speech.
Before diving into the recent election and referendum, it is important to note the groundwork laid by Correa. After winning the 2009 election, he stressed that he was the only voice of the people by asserting that “Ecuador voted for itself.” He marked his opposition as enemies of Ecuador, thus perpetuating the “us versus them” rhetoric discussed by McCoy et al, 2018. The “us versus them” dynamic solidified during Correa’s ten years in office has made Ecuador’s democracy particularly vulnerable. Moreover, the adoption of LOC has increased the polarization between the government and media outlets throughout the country. This heightened political polarization has also solidified around “pro- and anti-incumbent sentiment” clearly shown throughout the recent election (i.e. the polarizing nature of the Correa/anti-Correa debate within Ecuador’s electorate). Not surprisingly, Correa was omnipresent throughout the election and the beginning of Moreno’s term.
Moreno was elected by only 2.3 points over Lasso, highlighting the highly polarized climate in Ecuador. Numerous variables prompted speculation about the transparency in vote counting which led to Moreno and AP’s ultimate triumph. Lasso aggressively denounced the election process and protests broke out in support of Lasso in both Quito and Guayaquil. Since then, other nations have supported the election process. Yet, through multiple protests, it is clear that Moreno’s term will be marked by increased political polarization. Claims of fraud are extremely concerning as they have added fuel to an already tense and polarized political environment. Soon after becoming president, Moreno and his former allies of AP began to splinter as he forcefully broke away from Correa. While Correa expected him to continue his policies, Moreno has departed from the path which has internally divided the AP party. This political turnaround has complicated Ecuador’s transition of power and has heavily unraveled Correa’s AP. The tension came to the forefront once Moreno officially announced his plan to call a vote on seven key issues, including limiting the possibility of reelection for politicians. While Moreno states that the passed referendum will strengthen democracy and accountability in Ecuador, Correa and his party firmly disagree and accuse Moreno of betraying the Ecuadorian people and the platform he was elected on. I mean, the referendum could be a ploy to transfer the consolidation of power to himself, rather than an attempt to stop this continuation of power. Some groups fear that Moreno is using his new power (gained with the help of Correa) to simply insert his own control over the country.
Free and fair elections is an essential component of a democracy. The recent Ecuadorian election formally reflects the choice of the people, however, it only allowed constrained choices. Although the recent election of Moreno has been viewed as a victory for Ecuador’s democracy, it must be highlighted that he was hand-picked by Correa. Moreno served as vice president under Correa from 2007-2013 and ran on the AP ticket, which was founded and led by outgoing Correa. Likewise, Correa hand-picked Moreno’s running mate, Jorge Glas who was his past vice-president as well. Thus, Ecuador’s president and VP were strategically chosen by a man who had been in power for a decade and had changed the Ecuadorian constitution various times in order to retain power on multiple fronts. The only reason Correa didn’t rerun in the recent election was to debunk the commonly held belief that he was seeking to perpetuate himself in power. Yet don’t be fooled, Correa had a clear underlying motive to run again in the 2021 election. Moreover, this wasn’t news to anyone – most expected Moreno to be Correa’s puppet who would willfully step down in 2021. Can the election be considered free and fair if Correa orchestrated the entire thing? Not to mention, the resources, political support, and state-controlled media Correa gave to Moreno throughout the elections. In order to win, Moreno used the state and the media created by Correa. Rather than a blatant subversion of the democratic election process, Correa and the AP party had put in place a longer-term form of manipulation in the attempts to covertly stay in power. Thus, Moreno won in an unfair electoral field.
Media freedoms have been a prime site for democratic backsliding in Ecuador, especially throughout Correa’s ten years in office. Some of Correa’s strong mandates include the requirement for media outlets to operate in “the collective interest” and the ban of coverage aimed at “destroying the prestige of a natural or judicial person or reducing their public credibility.” This systemic repression of freedom of expression has severely eroded the state of democracy in Ecuador. Meanwhile, Moreno has vowed to reverse the repressive tactics on the media. Although Moreno has stated that he will fight corruption and go easier on the media, accountability has not been secured and true checks and balances have yet to be put in place. While he hasn’t strongly enforced LOC, a government plan to heavily reform and change the law has yet to materialize. Moreover, the repressive infrastructure that Correa built will definitely prove difficult to completely dismantle since the judiciary and many other public institutions are still largely controlled by Correa’s party. As stated by Human Rights Watch, The Ecuadorian Foreign Affairs Ministry is still heavily “adopting positions that are inconsistent with President Moreno’s public statements and seems to be still aligned with his predecessor’s open support of censorship and attacks on free speech and freedom of association.”
Ecuador’s democracy eroded substantially throughout Correa’s time in office, and although there is some optimism in the air, Moreno is not making any substantial changes towards democratic consolidation. A lot is left to be seen, specifically how Moreno will change Ecuador. As much as I want to be optimistic, Moreno didn’t start off great in regards to the way in which he won his seat in power. Perhaps even more important to note, Moreno didn’t start with a clean slate – he has inherited institutions created by Correa which are designed for autocratic control. Ecuador’s democracy will continue to erode if the AP party has the courts and bureaucracy firmly in its pocket. Although Correa is no longer “in power,” his legacy of democratic erosion has clearly bled over into Moreno’s presidency. Ecuador must take significant strides before truly consolidating its democracy, especially in light of its unstable economy. Only time will tell what the new president has in mind for the political future of Ecuador.
(Photo: Creative Commons Zero license)