Ecuador: the opposition doesn’t take off

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Favorable winds may finally be blowing for Ecuador’s opposition. There are signs in the political landscape that, after eight years in office, President Rafael Correa is no longer electorally invincible. The signs of change, both economic and political, bode ill for the President and suggest new hope for those who oppose him.

Economically, the government can no longer count on the flow of dollars created by the high price of oil (about $ 89,000 million between 2007 and 2014). As a direct consequence, the 2015 budget is underfunded and measures have been announced suggesting lean times to come.

One such measure, the decision to implement wage cuts for senior government officials (including the President), is unusual and political. The government does not yet speak of austerity, but if the oil price remains below $50, serious cuts will be unavoidable.

Politically, the local elections of 23rd February 2014 were a turning point. On that date, the government lost 21% of its electorate, according to studies by Professors Carlos Larrea & Paul Ospina of the Andina Simón Bolívar University. The ruling party also lost ten provincial capitals it had held since 2009, including Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. Opposition governors, far from being deposed, increased their share of the vote. The government’s electoral disappointments were concentrated in low-income and urban environments; an alarm the ruling party has yet to wake up to.

The public’s rejection of proposed indefinite reelection, according to polls, also bodes ill for the government. Correa is opposed to settling the matter by public vote, preferring to advance it through the National Assembly, where he holds a majority.

The political cost of seeking perennial power is as uncertain as the economic outlook. Increasingly contentious opinion polls indicate that, while the President’s popularity has dropped, his ratings still remain positive. Polling firm Market puts his popularity at about 40%, whilst Cedatos reports that he closed 2014 with a 60% approval rating.

Correa’s outlook look less favorable, but he’s still the government’s best presidential hope for the 2017 election. According to some surveys, the good news for the opposition is that, depending on election strategy, Correa may not win in the first round; furthermore, that if there is a second ballot, he may lose.

The truth is that, after eight years of Correa-ism, the opposition is extremely fragmented (a trait characteristic of Ecuadorian politics). Some parties, however, have virtually disappeared. Two of these casualties are particularly notable: the Roldosista Ecuadorian Party led by Abdala Bucaram (who was granted asylum in Panama following the 1997 coup that ended his rule); and PRIAN, headed by businessman Alvaro Noboa, a five-time Presidential candidate.

Lucio Gutierrez, former President of Ecuador and leader of the Sociedad Patriótica party, also seems to have been relegated. In the 2013 presidential election he won 7% of votes, behind Guillermo Lasso’s 23%. Mauricio Rodas won 4%. At 39 years old, Rodas was seen as a rising star and went on to cause surprise in 2014 by beating Correa’s candidate to win the mayoralty of Quito, a feat he intends to repeat this year.

It can be said that the 2013 presidential election outlined a new political opposition for Rafael Correa, sparking a resurgence of the center right and a deepening identity crisis on the left. Indeed, the Unidad Plurinacional de las Izquierdas party led by Alberto Acosta, Presidential mentor and former President of the National Assembly, won just 3% of votes. Rupture 25, a youth movement that split from Correa after five years of partnership, scored just over 1%.

These two facts plot the course for the opposition: the center-rightists must disprove the President when he accuses them of wanting to return to the past. The implication for Lasso and Rhodes, among others, is to modernize their parties. Fringes on the left who helped Rafael Correa come to power seem destined to move in the same direction, whilst the majority still remains prisoner of tenets laid down in the 1960s.

Theoretically, the two sides need to join forces to triumph over Correa-ism; a fact which parties from both camps understand. For example, on February 23rd of last year, a summit was held in Cuenca between Jaime Nebot, Mayor of Guayaquil, Mauricio Rodas, Mayor of Quito, and Paul Carrasco, Prefect of the Azuay province. This event was unusual for its very raison d’etre: a call for unity ahead of the 2017 presidential election.

Reactions to the summit, especially from the traditional, anti-Correa left, show that its participants still have some major obstacles to overcome. However, the stance taken by the local government leaders took the ruling party by surprise. Since then, Correa has not lost an opportunity to discredit the alliance, deeming it ‘unnatural’. The virulence of his attacks suggests that he is worried by the initiative.

Ideological prejudices are not the only obstacle faced by the opposition. The movement is divided between those who support Guillermo Lasso (a former banker with an extensive party structure) and those who advocate a two-stage unity process: first unite around a basic program and then choose voter representatives.

There is another point of friction between the 1960s-style lefts and the center/right fringes: whether to dismantle Correa-ism. The latter believe it is more of a priority to win the mayoralty of the National Assembly, than the Presidency itself. Guillermo Lasso is of this belief, arguing that a Constitutional Assembly should be used to dismantle the machine which concentrated all state power behind Correa. Conversely, Acosta’s left believes that the constitutional framework is adequate and that the problem is Rafael Correa himself. For these lefts, it would be enough to replace the President and restore the original 2008 Constitution that they helped to write and vote in.

Basically, this assessment reveals an essential strategic divide within the opposition. Some leaders advocate forging basic agreements between the main political forces backing the restoration of institutions and democracy in Ecuador. Others want to participate in the 2017 election whilst preserving the boundaries of their political persuasion.

The opposition has two years to create its electoral strategy. It’s a tall order, considering that the public does not yet acknowledge any real alternative to Correa-ism. Besides which, the opposition must take on the National Electoral Council, a body in which not a single opposition leader has any confidence. But who knows? The Ecuadorian President is an expert on increasing the number of discontented voters in his country. His latest effort is a war against his critics on social networks. After eight years of administration, he has nothing new to offer his electorate. The only option available to the opposition, it seems, is stirring up the ghosts of the past ..

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