Ecuador’s Presidential Election Is a Referendum on the Previous

QUITO, Ecuador – Ecuador is holding a presidential election on Sunday, but the name on many voters’ lips is not on the ballot.

Here in Ciudad Bicentenario, a well-tended housing project on the Andean slopes of the capital Quito, Rafael Correa most hopes for overcoming the overlapping crises caused by a pandemic and a recession.

As a charismatic past president, Mr. Correa reigned during an economic boom in the 2000s that helped many left-wing leaders in Latin America lift millions out of poverty and build lasting populace.

The left wave has since subsided; Most of their leaders have been charged with corruption and authoritarian overreach. Mr Correa himself has been convicted of a transplant, is facing another 35 criminal investigations and is no longer allowed to walk.

But he, like other powerful leaders of the so-called Pink Wave, continues to tower above the political landscape, polarizing the country and focusing the debate on his legacy rather than the reality that Ecuador is facing today.

From exile, Mr. Correa stood for the candidacy of Andrés Arauz, 35, a little-known economist, as the standard bearer of his political movement known as Correismo. The support catapulted Mr Arauz to the top of the presidential race, even though some of his supporters barely know his name.

“I am voting for my Rafaelito,” said María Obando, a 65-year-old pensioner from Ciudad Bicentenario, with a loving reduction in the first name of Mr Correa. When she was reminded that Mr. Correa is not running, she said, “It doesn’t matter, I will vote for his man.”

Mr Arauz runs against Guillermo Lasso, a former banker; Yaku Pérez, an indigenous environmental activist; and 13 other candidates.

More than a third of voters say they plan to cast their ballot papers for Mr Arauz. This puts him about eight percentage points ahead of Mr. Lasso and is very close to a final victory in the first round of elections on Sunday, according to a Jan. 28 poll average compiled by Electoral Calculus, an Ecuadorian research group. (Mr Arauz could win instantly with 40 percent of the vote if he is 10 points ahead of his closest rival.)

Mr Correa’s ongoing appeal could continue a regional trend with recession-weary voters in Argentina and Bolivia returning to the power of left-wing populist parties, linked with better days and social spending.

“We as a political project want the return of the politics that brought about so much well-being,” Correa said in an interview. He said he personally told Mr. Arauz that he had been selected as the Movement’s candidate and that he would remain in “constant contact” with him – by reporting a WhatsApp group that he said was his protégé Includes evidence of this connection.

Mr. Correa, the longest-serving president in the country since leaving the military dictatorship in 1979, earned the loyalty of many by bringing stability to a nation that was once marked by political and economic turmoil.

He distributed part of the country’s oil revenues to the poor in the form of cash grants and built schools, roads and heavily subsidized housing, such as the rows of three-story apartment blocks in Ciudad Bicentenario.

However, after the oil price slump in 2014, the economy largely stalled and the pandemic led to a crippling crisis. Economic activity contracted an estimated 9 percent last year as the coronavirus left hundreds of bodies on the streets of Ecuador’s second largest city, Guayaquil.

The long political shadow that Mr. Correa has cast on Ecuador underscores how popular South American leaders wield power long after their official term has expired, often supported by a permanent following.

Former President of Bolivia Evo Morales, who resigned under military pressure after a fourth term, has continued to select candidates for his party since returning from exile in November. In Argentina, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has continued to exert influence over her party since her return as Vice-President in 2019.

In neighboring Peru, where presidential elections are taking place in April, the daughter of the imprisoned authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori ranks second in some election polls, although the race remains volatile.

And in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, once popular leaders or their protégés evaded free and fair elections to maintain their rule.

Correa’s successor and his former vice president Lenín Moreno want Ecuador to break this mold, arguing that leaders with too tight a grip on power are unhealthy for democracies.

“The eternity of power unfortunately leads those who wield it to acquire malice, which in more than one occasion has led to corruption and even crimes against humanity,” Moreno said in an interview during his visit to Washington last month . “When your period ends, a leader has to say, ‘Right, enough.'”

After winning the 2017 election, Mr Moreno broke with his former ally and radically reversed the nation’s course. He gave up left-wing populism and Mr. Correa’s anti-imperialist rhetoric for conservative economic policies and closer ties with Washington.

Mr Moreno said he had also tried to rebuild the democratic institutions damaged by his predecessor’s disdain for the rules. He oversaw the restructuring of the Supreme Court to make it more independent, renegotiated the national debt and stopped official attacks on the news media.

“Unfortunately, what they were building had lost its direction,” said Moreno, referring to the previous government.

Mr Moreno chose not to seek re-election and reinstated the presidential term limits that had been abolished by Mr Correa. His government also conducted the corruption investigations that led to the conviction of the former president and the imprisonment of eight of his ministers. But Mr. Moreno’s austerity measures made him highly unpopular and made many Ecuadorians ask for Mr. Correa to return.

Mr Correa said the corruption allegations against him were political and called Mr Moreno “the worst traitor in the history of Ecuador”. He said the economic austerity measures should be abolished and the top judges appointed by Mr Moreno should be replaced. The president and attorney general who investigate him would end up in jail, Correa said.

Such an all-or-nothing policy reflects the cost of lingering Latin American leaders like Mr Correa, Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst at Eurasia Group, told a political risk consultancy.

“Everything will turn into a referendum on Correa,” she said. “The result is this constant back-and-forth movement where executives change the system at their own discretion before their successors try to undo it.”

These fluctuations undermine economic stability and investor confidence and make it difficult for the nation to move forward, Ms. Grais-Targow said.

Mr Correa said he would continue to live in Belgium, where he moved with his Belgian wife after leaving office, but defended his ongoing political ambitions. He said he would advise Mr Arauz if he won the office and claim to be “in perfect synchronicity” with the candidate.

“What would the problem be?” Mr Correa said when asked if he would run for office in the future. “Leadership positions are desirable, no country has developed without leadership.”

Political analysts say who wins the election will struggle to deliver on promises of a quick recovery. The national coffers are empty, and the majority of the country’s oil exports go to China in repayment for Chinese loans.

“The situation is not the same, the economy is not the same,” said José Fernández, pensioner in Ciudad Bicentenario, about the boom years of Mr Correa. “It’s going to be tough.”

Nevertheless, he plans to vote for Mr Arauz because he offers the greatest hope of replicating Mr Correa’s economic success.

“See, if this guy does exactly what Mr. Correa tells him he’ll be fine.”

José María León Cabrera reported from Quito, Anatoly Kurmanaev from Caracas, Venezuela and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City.

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