Five things that Correa’s likely reelection tells us about Ecuador (and South America)

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On Sunday, Ecuadorian voters will go to the polls to elect a new president and, like in the Armenian presidential election that will be held one day later, there’s very little suspense about who will win.ecuador flag icon new

Incumbent president Rafael Correa (pictured above) seems set to win his third consecutive term outright on the February 17 vote, avoiding the need for a runoff, which would occur nearly two months later on April 7, and thereby extending his rule through 2017.

One recent poll from Opinión Pública Ecuador shows that Correa leads his nearest opponent with 56% to 13%, and other polls have shown Correa with over 60% support.

Furthermore, in the simultaneous elections for 137 members of Ecuador’s unicameral parliament, the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), Correa’s party, the democratic socialist Movimiento Patria Altiva i Soberana or Alianza PAIS (Proud and Sovereign Fatherland, with ‘PAIS’ an acronym that’s also Spanish for ‘nation’) formed in 2006 to boost Correa’s initial presidential run, is set to extend its legislative lead.  It currently holds 59 of the 124 seats in the current Asamblea Nacional, with the less-dominant populist Partido Sociedad Patriótica 21 de Enero (PSP, January 21 Patriotic Society Party), headed by former president Lucio Gutiérrez as its nearest competition, holding just 19 seats.

So what does that say about the current moment in Ecuador and, more generally, Correa’s contribution to Latin American politics?

Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s likely result.

1. Ecuador’s democratic ecosystem is becoming less competitive than Chile’s — or even Peru’s.

Correa won reelection in the 2009 presidential election with 51.99% of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff, the first presidential candidate to do so since Ecuador instituted a runoff presidential voting system in the 1979 election following military rule in the 1970s, and he’s already served a longer consecutive term than any Ecuadorian president in the 20th century, and his presidency followed an unstable succession of seven presidents in a single decade.

That’s been very good for Ecuador in some ways, as I’ll note below, especially with respect to Correa’s sustained investment in the country’s social welfare and infrastructure.

But despite the country’s historically weak executives, Correa’s presidency begs the question of whether Ecuador has shifted too far in the opposite direction, and it’s fair to wonder if Correa has used his government to consolidate so much power that no opponent could break through.

Critics, however, note that Correa has ruled over an Ecuadorian political climate where the media has become less free through the closure of independent radio and television stations and through the government’s role in promoting itself through the publicly-owned media.  That explains, in part, why his opposition has had such a difficult time breaking through this time around.

2. Wealthy bankers in still-developing Latin American countries and disgraced former candidates don’t make the best opposition candidates.

The opponent who consistently polls best against Correa (even if Correa still has four times his support) is Guillermo Lasso, a former president of the Banco de Guayaquil, but his campaign of lower taxes and corporate incentives hasn’t caught on in a country that still mistrusts bankers following the 1999 economic crisis in Ecuador, the latest in a line of events that left the country with a reputation as being an economic basketcase.

Even if Lasso somehow hits 20%, it will be one of the weakest opposition efforts in modern Ecuadorian history.

Lasso reminds me of the kind of aristocratic oligarchs that Hugo Chávez swept out of power in 1999, and who still dominate opposition politics in Venezuela.

But even in last October’s Venezuelan presidential election, the opposition chose as its candidate the governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles, who campaigned on a progressive agenda that sought to leave in place many of Chávez’s programs for the poor, including his trademark misiones.  The Lasso campaign pales in comparison.

Note that Lasso’s the best of the lot — there are a handful of candidates who could only dream of Lasso’s support, including Gutiérrez, president from 2003 to 2005, who was removed as president by Ecuador’s Congress after mass demonstrations against his government in 2005, fled to Brazil shortly thereafter, and returned to run for the presidency against Correa in 2009, finishing in second place with a relatively weak 28.6%.  Polls show he’ll be lucky to win double-digit support this time around.

Perennial candidate Álvaro Noboa, who made it to the runoff stage of Ecuador’s presidential election in 1998, 2002 and 2006 (and even edged out Correa in the first round of the 2006 election with 26.8% of the vote to Correa’s 22.8%), is even more hopeless.  A banana tycoon and one of the wealthiest persons in Ecuador, he’s seen as a relative neophyte in Ecuadorian politics, despite his many attempts to win the presidency, and his wealth and conservative platform makes Lasso seem like a veritable progressive in contrast.

Perhaps the candidate who had the most potential to mount a real challenge is Alberto Acosta, a former oil and mining minister and constitutional adviser to Correa in his first term and, indeed, one of the co-founders of the Alianza PAIS.  Acosta is running against his one-time colleague, attacking Correa for betraying his socialist roots and becoming increasingly autocratic, but remains mired in single digits as well.

3. The chavista left may be dying, but the populist left is thriving throughout Latin America.

A few days ago, Alvaro Vargas Llosa argued in Foreign Policy that the so-called chavista left is dying as the Venezuelan presidency of Hugo Chávez fades with his seemingly terminal illness.

But that’s no more true than saying that the peronista left died in Argentina with the death of Eva Perón, or that the death of any of two centuries’ worth of colorful caudillos signaled the end of populism in Latin America.

It’s true that there’s both a moderate, business-oriented left on the rise in Latin America (see, e.g., former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, or even Peruvian president Ollanta Humala) and an even more progressive, green, middle-class left, as personified by former Bogotá mayor and Colombian presidential candidate Antanas Mockus and the surprising success of Marina Silva, the Partido Verde (Green Party) candidate in the 2010 Brazilian presidential election.

But so long as widespread poverty exists in Latin America, especially in light of the fact that the region remains in the shadow of a neocolonial and exploitative century of relations with the United States, there will always be a space for a populist left in Latin America — including not only Chávez, his vice president Nicolás Maduro or any other short-term successor in Venezuela, but also Fidel and Raúl Castro in Cuba, Bolivian president Evo Morales, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, former Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo and to some degree, Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

And yes, that includes Correa as well, who has thumbed his nose at global (read: Wall Street) investors, the U.S. government, though he hasn’t been as heavy-handed as Chávez about expropriation or other coercive tools.

4. A strong economy and massive spending to pull the poor out of poverty works for most incumbents, not just the populist left.

Government revenue has tripled since Correa took office (and so have expenditures), on the basis of Ecuador’s oil reserves, as well as a fiscal deficit that’s running nearly 8% and a December 2008 decision by the Correa administration to default on part of its sovereign debt, up to $3.2 billion in government bonds.

Although Ecuador is still shut out of global capital markets, which means that Ecuador largely depends on oil prices and the advance payments from the People’s Republic of China, that hasn’t stopped Correa from going on a spending spree, most particularly by updating Ecuador’s infrastructure, largely through an unprecedented network of roads that have made Ecuador’s exports more efficient and competitive.

More importantly to the masses, however, have been the social welfare programs that have reduced the poverty rate from around two-thirds of all Ecuadorians when Correa took office to around one-quarter today.

What the misiones have been to Venezuela and the Bolsa Familia has been to Brazil, the bono de desarrollo humano has been to Ecuador — cash grants provided directly to the country’s poorest citizens and which now reach nearly 2 million people out of a total population of 15 million.

As noted above, even the relatively conservative opposition in Venezuela ran against Chávez last year did so largely conceding that many of the Chávez-initiated anti-poverty programs should remain in place (we’re all chavistas now!).

Indeed, there’s certainly no rule that says that only the most populist leftists can deploy government funds in the service of alleviating poverty (or winning the next election).  The intellectual forerunner of the Bolsa Familia, perhaps the most famous such program instituted in the 2000s by Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva that now reaches over 25% of Brazilians, was Oportunidades, a similar program instituted in 2002 by México’s center-right president Vicente Fox.

Even in 1973, when Augusto Pinochet led a military coup and then began inviting University of Chicago economists to liberalize the Chilean economy, he retained state control over Chile’s profitable copper mines.

5. Whatever the reason to offer asylum to Julian Assange, it wasn’t necessary to shore up Correa’s campaign.

Last August, I argued that Correa’s move to offer asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was, in part, to shore up his own domestic credibility as a populist Latin American leader.

While I still think that’s true, what’s clear is that it’s just one part of Correa’s long-term hostility to Western governments, and the United States in particular.  Correa expelled the U.S. ambassador to Ecuador in 2011 over the Wikileaks brouhaha, and he’s been loathe to welcome U.S. military assistance for drug eradication.

But when it comes to Correa’s case for reelection, the broad anti-American rhetoric is only a very minor aspect in contrast to the actions Correa’s governments have taken to reduce poverty and improve life within Ecuador, however unorthodox his methods.

BONUS: Correa’s campaign is literally the only campaign I know whose official colors are an otherworldly, Area 51 shade of fluorescent chartreuse. 

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