After a slight reprieve from authoritarian and populist leadership, Ecuador might see a return to the left as the current front-runner in the Ecuadorian presidential elections, Andrés Arauz, has intricate ties to the former populist president Rafael Correa.
Since 2017, it seemed that Ecuador had turned away from the authoritarian tendencies and populist leadership of Rafael Correa, but the country could be on a path to the re-election of a populist leader this upcoming April. The Ecuadorian presidential runoff scheduled for April 11th will pit progressive economist Andres Arauz against conservative banker Guillermo Lasso. However, the 36-year-old front-runner, a protégé of former President Rafael Correa might prove to be integrally connected to Correa in a manner that allows the former president to retain political control. Correa espoused democratic ideals at the beginning of his presidency, but ultimately contributed to the democratic erosion and populist rhetoric that Ecuador has only began to recover from under President Lenín Moreno. Arauz, the next Correa, could be dangerous for the country’s recently recuperating democracy.
Ecuador’s recent leadership has been transient and corrupt, marked by extraconstitutional removals of presidents Abdalá Bucaram in 1997, Jamil Mahuad in 2000 and Lucio Gutiérrez in 2005. Directly preceding Correa’s rule, Gutierrez abused civil liberties by censoring press, allowing police brutality, and eliminating democratic institutions. A middle class uprising termed “Rebelion de los Forajidos” removed Gutierrez from power and opened the door for a populist presidential candidate promising to give that middle class a better future. During Correa’s four-year rule from 2013 – 2017, the president focused on increasing spending on social programs and lifting millions out of poverty through oil export income during a commodity boom. However, commodity prices eventually fell, and Correa’s socialist economic model was in ruins. Protests quickly arose with the aim of ousting Correa from office, and with polls looking dismal, Correa decided to abstain from running for office again in 2017.
Correa’s social spending agenda helped the country grow and prosper for a period of time, but this allowed Correa to exert more authoritarian control under the guise of “rule of law” rhetoric. This type of behavior is deemed “stealth authoritarianism” by Ozan Varol (2014), and Correa fits almost all of the criteria. Correa convinced the National Congress to eliminate term limits as well as altered the constitution to give himself more power through a constitutional assembly. Judiciary power was his to control after he reformed the judiciary to appoint loyalist judges. The former president also altered Ecuadorian electoral laws by changing voting districts and appointing an ally to the head of the National Electoral Council. He introduced the Ley Mordaza in 2013 which created the watchdog agency Superintendency of Communication and Information (Supercom) with the aim of intimidating Ecuador’s media. Supercom initiated investigations into critical media and heavily fined sources which resulted in a severely repressed media. The use of legal mechanisms such as judicial review, electoral laws, surveillance laws and libel lawsuits all contributed to Correa’s entrenchment of the status quo and maintenance of political power.
Using formal practices for non-democratic means to “raise the costs of opposition” is exactly what Correa achieved during his presidency. What is more, eroding these democratic institutions, slowly but steadily, under the rule of law and out of public view is what Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsberg (2018) would deem constitutional retrogression. They cite five mechanisms including constitutional retrogression, constitutional amendment, elimination of institutional checks, centralization and politicization of power, contraction/distortion of the public sphere and the elimination of political opposition (of which Correa utilized almost all under an authoritarian agenda) as mechanisms of constitutional retrogression. In place of a full-scale authoritarian reversion, Correa masked his repression under the mask of law and at a slow pace to entrench the status quo and avoid popular uprisings against his authoritarian tendencies.
In addition to employing constitutional retrogression, Correa’s leadership style contributed to his backsliding agenda. Correa’s leadership has been consistently characterized as populist autocracy or “correismo” by many outside observers. Utilizing the rhetoric of the Ecuadorian people against a small elite gave him widespread support and provided a platform for the authoritarian to promote himself as the one true representative of the people. In Jan-Werner Mueller’s book What is Populism, the explanation of what populists’ claim is that elites are corrupt and inherently against the moral will of the people which only the populist themselves can discern and realize. What populists do in practice is occupy the state, engage in mass clientelism and react harshly to NGOs that oppose them. Correa has installed loyalists, intimidated the media, used the economic boom from oil to his advantage and has threatened the work of NGOs during his presidency, all combining to form populist leadership.
When it came time for Correa to leave office, he adopted the practice of fellow Latin American populist, Hugo Chavez, who hand-picked his former vice president, Nicolás Maduro to succeed him and notified Venezuelans of his approval. Similarly, Correa hand-picked his former vice president Lenín Moreno to assume the presidency after himself with the objective of maintaining authoritarian control through Moreno. However, Moreno quickly assumed policies out of accordance with Correa’s leftist style, and initiated investigations into Correa’s government. Parting ways with Correa did much to reverse the democratic backsliding that Correa had instituted through authoritarian tactics and populist tendencies. Moreno supported the rebuilding of democratic institutions and argued that too tight a grip on power hinders democracy.
Because of Moreno’s investigations, Correa currently resides in his home in Belgium and is barred from running for political office again. However, this does not mean that he cannot find a way to rule over seas. Correa is attempting to make up for his mistake of appointing Moreno now with the approval of a former minister of Correa’s Cabinet, Arauz, in the current presidential election. Correa has made no attempt to hide his connection with protégé Arauz, even going so far as to say that the two were in “perfect synchrony.” Arauz already espouses the same populist tendencies and policy interests as Correa. He proposes cutting ties with the International Monetary Fund, increasing taxes on the Ecuadorian elite and significantly increasing social spending. Additionally, he promises to oppose austerity measures (common of Moreno’s government) and to return to a state of economic boom.
Arauz’s promises and projections appear almost identical to Correa’s, but there are mixed views among analysts on whether the front-runner will turn out to be a political puppet, or if he will take after Moreno and assert his independence of Correa after being elected. Some cite Arauz’s differences from Correa in terms of charisma, his lack of want to go after the press, less aggression towards perceived threats and the absent economic resources that significantly aided Correa. However, if the candidate has the same policies, socialist agenda and populist rhetoric as Correa, the differences between the two may prove insignificant.
Correa’s heavy endorsement of front-runner Arauz and statement of his intent to advise the politician from abroad points to the possible return to the left for Ecuador. But what is more, Correa’s left is accompanied by corruption with the aim to undermine democracy as was demonstrated by the stealth authoritarianism and constitutional retrogression of his previous regime. Correa’s dangerous and broadly supported populist rhetoric has already been taught to the up-and-coming Arauz. Whether Arauz will immediately reinstate Correa’s agenda or if he utilizes techniques to disguise his authoritarian tendencies, the return of populism is clear, and another wave of democratic backsliding could be soon to follow.