CIVICUS discusses the results of the 15 October runoff vote in Ecuador’s presidential election with Humberto Salazar, executive director of Fundación Esquel.
Esquel is a civil society organisation that seeks to contribute to sustainable human development, the improvement of the quality of life of the most excluded parts of the population and the construction of a democratic, responsible and supportive society in Ecuador.
How did violence as a result of organised crime affect the election?
The electoral process was deeply affected by violence. This was not limited to the death of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. In the context of these and the previous local elections, elected representatives to local governments were also assassinated. The most notorious case was that of Agustín Intriago, mayor of the city of Manta. A candidate for the National Assembly was also assassinated, and many other candidates for different positions received threats. The list of fatal victims of violence expands if we include the seven suspects captured for the Villavicencio assassination who were killed in the prisons where they were being held.
In this context, voting preferences were surely affected. From the shadows, groups representing local and transnational mafias sent intimidating messages through violent acts that influenced people’s votes. This was very evident in the first round, when following Villavicencio’s assassination, most voters opted for candidates who until then had had no chance of reaching the runoff. This was the case with Jan Topic and Daniel Noboa, the president-elect. Both saw their numbers rebound after the assassination.
Was violence a campaign issue in the runoff?
The influence of violence on the elections went beyond being a campaign issue strategically chosen by the candidates. For voters, security became a central issue on the agenda, even surpassing in priority other key issues such as unemployment and poverty.
It is not that unemployment and poverty lost relevance, but rather that the three issues became an integrated trio of aspirations that is at the basis of current demands. The electorate is looking for quick and effective, but not isolated, answers. Security, unemployment and poverty are all elements of the same equation that citizens demand from the political system.
Although the candidates’ proposals on the issue were very general, there is a consensus in political circles that security is a key issue in Ecuador’s current situation. Consequently, in the coming days the president-elect will have to develop his security proposals in greater detail. At the polls, voters didn’t evaluate whether the proposals of either candidate on the issue were the best, nor did they have the tools to do so, but now they hope that, regardless of the policies chosen, the result of their implementation will be greater peace.
Do you see the result as indicating a rightward turn by the electorate, or do you think the vote wasn’t ideologically motivated?
The analysis of electoral preferences is not a game of addition and subtraction in which one side, in this case the right, wins, while the other side loses. Nor are we dealing with a naïve or uninformed electorate that has been tricked by a renewed right-wing alternative and has leaned towards right-wing values, principles and narratives as a result.
In the current circumstances, the vote is far from ideological. Other considerations weigh in the assessment of available options. In this case, the search for novelty prevailed, allowing for the victory of an ‘outsider’. In Ecuador, outsiders have a long track record of success.
While the winning candidate represents the right in terms of his values and models, discursively he presents himself as a renovator, much more pragmatic than ideological. This blurring of ideological content is not a unique feature of this particular candidate, but expresses a deeper process of transformation of representation in a context in which rhetoric has been emptied of content as a result of practices blatantly contradicting discourse.
People voted overwhelmingly for a candidate who managed to inspire their trust, whose traits set him apart from the polarised competition proposed by more ideological candidates. They looked for someone who offered alternatives not only to address security issues but also to tackle issues of economic recovery and welfare.
The result was also influenced by the expectations of specific audiences such as young people, who make up a major part of the electoral roll. This part of the electorate sought options for the future detached from the conflicts between those who are ultimately responsible for the crisis in which we are now immersed. In this sense, right-wing and left-wing ideological narratives were equally punished, as evidenced by the fact that all traditional parties lagged behind in the election results.
Why did defeated candidate Luisa González lose, despite having a stronger party structure?
A key factor in Luisa González’s defeat in the runoff was the weight of the figure of former president Rafael Correa as the symbol and leader of the Citizen Revolution movement. This leadership, which offers the movement a captive electorate of around 25 per cent, also creates a ceiling that, in a polarised competition between Correism and anti-Correism, does not allow the candidate to surpass the 50 per cent required to win in the runoff. The same polarisation strategy that gave Correa’s government the strength to push its agendas has reduced her chances of attracting an electorate that is not part of the party’s hardcore vote.
The revanchist narratives of Correism, expressed in the motto ‘neither forgive nor forget’, also undermined González’s support. The appeal to a return to the past reaffirmed the party’s base, but prevented it winning the votes of a broader electorate that distrusts the authoritarian tendencies of Correism and feared that the triumph of his candidate would translate into restrictions on civic space, particularly on freedom of association.
What are civil society’s expectations of the new administration?
While the president-elect does not have a history of resistance to civil society participation, during the campaign he was not particularly open to receiving proposals from and meeting with civil society groups. This creates uncertainty about how broad and effective spaces for civil society participation in public policy design and implementation will be. In principle, there are no clear threats to civic space, but there is uncertainty regarding the new government’s position on the promotion and strengthening of civil society.
It is worth noting that the two second-round competitors had a conservative bias beyond their ideological leanings to the right or left. Hence the uncertainty as to how the new president will respond to social demands from the gender equality agendas of feminist groups and the LGBTQI+ community, the demands of the Indigenous movement regarding plurinationality and interculturality, and the concerns of the human rights movement regarding the search for policies to tackle crime that do not sacrifice rights.
What is certain is that there is a huge number of problems that the new government will have to address. To sustain its initiatives beyond the one and a half years of his term in office, the new president will need to make a broad call for action and produce a basic agenda endorsed by national multi-stakeholder agreements. Policies on security, labour – with an emphasis on youth employment under a model of intergenerational inclusion – and combating chronic child malnutrition will be indispensable. The so-called Democracy Code, the 2009 law that establishes the electoral system, the management of elections and the requirements for the functioning and financing of political parties and movements, must also be reformed.
Do you think this election put an end to political instability?
The instability is not over, but the election provided a temporary and short-lived escape valve for the tensions of the multi-dimensional crisis affecting Ecuador. The government’s grace period, however, will be very limited: it will have to produce measures in the short term that show it’s on the way to resolving major problems.
Two things could work against it: the slowness of the bureaucratic apparatus to develop transformative projects and the power struggle that could block its initiatives in the National Assembly. The relationship between the executive and legislative branches will be key. If the executive once again finds itself blocked by a multitude of special interests demanding perks to enable the approval of its initiatives, the crisis will again deepen.
Civic space in Ecuador is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.