In recent years, Ecuador has witnessed a complex interplay between democracy and the rise of populism, a phenomenon that has captured the attention of political analysts and scholars alike. As a nation historically rooted in democratic principles, Ecuador’s political landscape has undergone significant shifts, giving rise to populist leaders, like Rafael Correa, who challenged established norms and institutions. During his decade rule, Ecuador faced a distressing dichotomy — on one hand it experienced unprecedented political stability, robust economic growth and a significant reduction in poverty levels, but these positive outcomes came at the expense of free and independent media, impartial courts, and the adherence to long-standing political norms. Despite the shadow that was cast around Ecuador’s democratic landscape, the country has proven that democracy can be restored post-populism.
It is important to understand the context and longstanding history of populism in Latin America, and more so in Ecuador that has had a tumultuous love-affair with populist leaders dating back to the 1930s. Jan-Werner Müller, a prominent political scientist, defines populism as a “moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified… people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior.” In addition to their anti-elitist rhetoric, populists are anti-pluralist, relying on a pars pro toto logic to justify that they alone represent the “true” voice and interests of the “people.” Müller provides a useful framework through which to analyze populist regimes; he explains that populist leaders exhibit three key features: attempts to hijack the state apparatus, corruption and “mass clientelism” — exchanging material benefits and bureaucratic favors for support from citizens / “clients.”
Upon careful review, it is clear that these characteristics were prevalent during Correa’s presidency. Correa’s administration put these changes into effect relying on tactics of constitutional retrogression to subtly but incrementally, erode institutions, consolidate his power and dismantle democracy. First, Correa hijacked the state apparatus through direct reforms to the constitution and subsequent constitutional amendments. Starting in 2008, he successfully codified two highly controversial pieces of legislation that served to centralize executive power: lifting the term limits of any public official (including the president), and limiting the freedom of the press, known as the Organic Law on Communications. The latter of these reforms severely constrained independent media in Ecuador, as the new “independent” media watchdog, Superintendency of Communication and Information (SUPERCOM), was used as a front to systematically investigate (read: censor) and fine media outlets that were critical of the government for spreading unbalanced, misleading or defamatory information to the public. In practice, this created a system of fear and excessive persecution. According to SUPERCOMs own report, in the four years after its creation, they processed 1,081 cases, with 675 resulting in sanctions. In a similar vein, Correa took a page from his Venezuelan counterpart at the time, Hugo Chavez – and leveraged the national emergency communications system on radio and television to broadcast his sabatinas, a weekly, multi-hour propaganda show where he would not only give his rundown of the major events of that week but publicly attack any of his detractors. The objective of these broadcasts was to “clarify fallacies, stories full of hate and malice that [circulated] daily on social media and private media channels”. Correa believed that the pelucones or political bourgeoisie had remained unaccountable for their actions for several years, and he was countering that by creating a direct line of communication with the people. In theory, there was going to be a citizen hotline where Ecuadorians could dial in and voice their concerns, and all media would be invited. In practice, the former was never put in place, and the latter were banned after a few months.
Second, Correa installed a blatantly corrupt judiciary system, which was composed of loyalist agents of the state. He created a new Judicial Council (Consejo de la Judicatura), that was paraded as a new merit-based, transparent system of judge appointments, but in reality, only judges that were aligned with his party, Alianza Pais, were ever qualified. Furthermore, Correa manipulated votes through gerrymandering in key districts of Guayas, Pichincha and Manabí and changing the electoral counting formulas from Hare to D’Hondt, with the sole purpose of favoring the incumbent party. This was most evident after his second election in 2013 where he obtained an unprecedented 73% majority, vs 47.6% in the prior cycle. Such a landslide victory was something that Ecuador had not seen since the 1970s. But what is just as jarring is that all of these changes were achieved legitimately, through the use of a national referendum that more than ¾ of Ecuadorians voted on, given the national mandatory voting requirement.
Third, Correa was able to cement support through his policy of mass clientelism. He was able to keep his allies happy through monetary and political favors, including his political peers and his constituents. While in power, salaries of civil servants more than doubled, and social spending increased from 20% to 40% of GDP. He also worked diligently to install local apparatchiks, expanding the public number of public servants five fold to 500,000 in 5 years and creating doubling the number of ministers for them to serve. Finally, to complement his spending, Correa doubled the reach of an existing social welfare program, a monthly stipend known as the Bono de Desarollo Humano, to cover two million Ecuadoreans by 2012. These exorbitant levels of spending were unsustainable, and although Ecuador was able to partially justify the expense from increased oil prices, the debt acquired was on a completely different scale. By the end of his tenure as president, Correa had acquired a $6.5 billion debt to the Chinese, and had committed 90% of all its exportable crude oil to China, through 2024.
By 2017, it seemed that Correa had so fundamentally entrenched himself into the fabric of the country that there was no hope for democracy. But his overconfidence in his power led him to make a fatal mistake – stepping down from the presidency to allow his former vice president to take the helm (as Vladimir Putin did with Dmitry Medvedev). Correa did not anticipate that Moreno would turn on him and use his power to undo Correa’s work. Moreno swiftly repealed the two most problematic laws: the communication law that strictly limited independent media and the law that allowed for unlimited presidential terms. Next, he cut back on ostentatious government spending, and renegotiated loan repayment plans with China.
Ultimately, the latest presidential elections in October further served to consolidate democratic norms in Ecuador. Daniel Noboa, the president-elect of Ecuador, won the run-off with approximately 52% of the popular vote. Despite fears that his opponent, Luisa Gonzalez – an ally and former secretary under Correa – would claim that the elections were rigged, she peacefully conceded and even congratulated Noboa. While Noboa’s presidency will come with its fair share of challenges, there are clear indicators that Ecuador is embracing a resurgence of democratic values and a rejection of the populist stronghold. Ecuador’s ability to navigate the complexities posed by populism underscores the enduring power of democratic principles and provides hope that, even in the face of adversity, nations can reclaim their democratic heritage.