In Ecuador, the traditional right-wing candidate has won the presidential election. The election process revealed deep divisions within the Ecuadorian and Latin American Left. The country’s social movements give hope for resistance against a continuation of neoliberal reforms.
Guillermo Lasso succeeded on his third attempt: on 24 May, the long-standing CEO of one of the country’s largest banks will assume the role of president of Ecuador. He won the run-off election against ally of Rafael Correa, Andrés Arauz, on 11 April with 52.36 percent of the valid votes. At the same time, an historically high proportion of the votes cast—more than 16 percent—were invalid protest votes—a move that had been called for by the indigenous organization CONAIE and its affiliated political party Pachakutik.
Ferdinand Muggenthaler heads the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Regional Office in Quito. This article first appeared at Lateinamerika Nachrichten.
It is for this reason that sections of the Left are now accusing the indigenous movement, which constituted the driving force behind the October 2019 protests against neoliberal austerity measures, of having helped a neoliberal candidate to victory. Observed from a distance, the roles appeared to be clearly defined: left versus right, progressives versus neoliberals. So why did so many members of the left—indigenous and other social movements in Ecuador—not support Arauz against his right-wing opponent and instead call for people to cast spoiled votes?
The primary reason is their bad experiences with Correism, a political trend named after Ecuador’s long-ruling president Rafael Correa, who proclaimed his support for the “socialism of the 21st century”, but whose policies were actually more focused on modernizing the capitalist system with a strong state than on championing a socially transformative agenda. When it comes to other issues, he takes a Catholic conservative stance: in 2013, when sections of his party sought to push through legislation that would legalize abortions in cases of rape, he threatened to resign.
Arauz himself was relatively unknown in Ecuador prior to the elections. He was elected and campaigned as Correa’s candidate and promised a return to the golden years of Correism following a four-year hiatus. In light of the crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, a great many voters longed for a return to more stable conditions and voted for Arauz. For most Ecuadorians, Rafael Correa’s first years in office heralded visible achievements—especially construction projects—and tangible benefits: socially insured jobs, grants, and social programmes.
But for many voters, the memory of the golden years was not enough to sway them; they considered the proponents of Correism to also be partially responsible for the current crisis. Despite the commodity boom, foreign debt increased, and social spending had to be curtailed as oil prices fell. From 2015 onwards—while the country was still under Correa’s rule—Ecuador again spent more on debt service than on health and education combined.
Against this backdrop, Arauz received the most votes of any candidate in the first round of elections on 7 February. However, with only 32 percent of the vote, he was unable to replicate the earlier successes of his political mentor. The traditional right was subject to penalties. Despite his alliance with the main right-wing competitor, the Social Christian Party (PSC), Lasso only narrowly managed to make it into the run-off. The parliamentary seats won by Lasso’s CREO and the PSC total just under 22 percent of the overall seats, which is an historically poor result; in 2017, the number was almost 36 percent.
The greatest surprise to come out of the first round of voting was the success of Pachakutik and its candidate Yaku Pérez, who describes himself as an environmental leftist. Pérez received 19.39 percent of votes nationwide, and his party Pachakutik, which is regarded as CONAIE’s parliamentary arm, will enter parliament as the second largest parliamentary group (see LN 561).
Pérez was initially in second place while the votes were being counted and was expected to win a place in the run-off election, but Lasso ended up surpassing him by 32,000 votes in the official final results. Pachakutik submitted over 27,000 documents pertaining to inconsistencies in the voting process, but the electoral council only allowed 31 of them to be examined. These reduced the gap between Pérez and Lasso by 485 votes—a significant number for 31 documents, but not enough to close the gap with Lasso. The question of whether electoral fraud was committed, or whether the results were simply due to sloppiness in an electoral process that had already been complicated by the pandemic remains open. On 14 March, the electoral commission rejected an application for another recount.
Another surprise was how well the traditional social-democratic party Izquierda Democrática (Democratic Left), with its candidate Xavier Hervas, fared in the election results. In Ecuador, it was not right-wing Bolsonaro-esque populists who profited from the public’s frustration with the corrupt political establishment, but rather Pachakutik and social democrats.
In the electoral campaign for the second round of elections, both candidates began to alter their campaign rhetoric in order to win over voters from Pérez and Hervas. Arauz incorporated the establishment of women’s shelters into his electoral platform, as well as the abolition of VAT on sanitary pads and tampons. Lasso also felt compelled to soften his image as an ultra-conservative Opus Dei supporter and spoke about the “tireless struggle of women to achieve equality and against violence”, and environmental issues also suddenly appeared on his agenda.
But there were other factors that were likely more crucial for Lasso’s election victory: he was able to rid himself to a large extent of his rigid image, and his newly refurbished campaign team provided him with Tiktok-appropriate slogans instead of long lectures on economic policy. He also started wearing red trainers.
Arauz also attempted to change his image: he began talking about the mistakes made by Correa’s government and also talked a great deal about love in an attempt to break with the confrontational and arrogant style of his political forebear and mentor, and had campaign caps made with the slogan “Más amor, menos hate” (more love, less hate). However, most election analysts agree that he was ultimately unable step out of Correa’s shadow.
After the first round of elections, some—especially international—proponents of Correism responded to the surprise victory of indigenous candidate Pérez by launching personal attacks on him. For example, they insinuated that he had been bought out by the USA, or that he was driven by the will to power of his Brazilian partner Manuela Picq. In response, intellectuals and academics from the USA, Latin America, and Europe composed an open letter calling for an end to the “racist and misogynist attacks on the emergent indigenous, eco-feminist left in Latin America”. Their hope was that Pachakutik’s relative electoral success in the first round might indicate a trend towards a new left and away from progressive governments and their successors led by authoritarian figures and based on the redistribution of revenue generated by extractivism.
But even members of the left who do not consider Pérez a right-wing figure criticize him for not having supported Arauz in the run-off election. One example is the Brazilian sociologist and left-wing intellectual Emir Sader, who claims that Yaku Pérez and Xavier Hervas “put secondary disagreements with Correa’s government—conflicts with the indigenous movement, issues of environmental protection—ahead of the most fundamental opposition of our time: between neoliberalism and post-neoliberalism”. The struggle against neoliberalism was undoubtedly an important ideological fundament for the “pink tide” that engendered a great many progressive governments in Latin America in the early 2000s.
From the perspective of feminists, environmental activists, and large sections of the indigenous movement in Ecuador, human rights, environmental destruction, and a person’s bodily autonomy are not secondary issues. They also accuse the governments under Correa of misusing the judicial system for political purposes, for example in order to have protests against mining projects labelled as acts of terrorism. Experiences such as this make it difficult for them to return to the sense of unity that Sader has called for.
Even without this backstory, the fundamental conflict between the different visions for the future would remain. The two contrasting fantasies of development are caricatured in two Tiktok videos by Arauz and Pérez: while Pérez is filmed milking a cow with his mother, Arauz, as if in a promotional video for a telephone company, juggles glowing icons and promises internet for everybody before disappearing into a fast-paced world of luminous digits. On the one hand we are presented with an agro-ecological, smallholder paradise, and on the other, a great leap into a high-tech society.
Now, in the wake of Lasso’s election victory, will both camps be able to do away with the caricatures and begin to see themselves as part of a pluralistic left, and thus convert the defeat of the right-wing in the first round of elections into a victory for a left-wing, socio-ecological perspective in the intermediate-term? It would appear unlikely.
International lenders have thus far been pleased by Lasso’s victory and are hoping for regular repayments: Ecuador’s risk assessment experienced an immediate, albeit modest improvement. For all of the softened rhetoric in the second round of elections, Lasso has an agenda that appeals to the financial markets: he promises to increase the minimum wage, but wants to privatize and lower taxes; he relies on free trade agreements, boosting exports, and therefore on an increase in extractivism. Whether or not he will be able to push through this agenda is another question: he does not have a majority in parliament and was primarily elected as the lesser of two evils.
Some members of the Left and activists involved in social movements are now hoping for street protests to take place—as they did in October 2019—in order to hinder the implementation of Lasso’s policies. Correa, on the other hand, is sending conciliatory tones from his Belgian exile. In a speech addressed to the people of Ecuador, he offered to cooperate with Lasso for the good of Ecuador: “Count on us for everything that could be good for our country. … Count on our parliamentary group to maintain governance.”