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Post-socialist Ecuador: How the victory of neoliberalism was possible

By Roberto Porras-

Source: Angel Dejesus/ AP

After more than a decade, the Ecuadorian people are finally closing the chapter of “Socialism of the 21st century”. The small South American country held its second round of democratic elections on April 11th 2021, in which the right-wing candidate Guillermo Lasso, who ran against the left-wing runner-up Andrés Arauz, won the presidency. Lasso is the first right-wing-oriented candidate to win the presidency in nearly 14 years. However, Lasso’s success cannot be entirely attributed to him and his ideology, rather, it is a complex and deep-rooted phenomenon that relates to Ecuadorian’s views of the legacy of 21st-century socialism as well as political divides and a complicated political scene during the elections.

The Legacy of Rafael Correa and 21st-century socialism:

To understand how the victory of right-wing Lasso was possible, first we need to understand the failures of 21st-century socialism, and its most associated representative in the country: economist Rafael Correa who was Ecuador’s president from 2007 to 2017. Correa’s legacy continues to influence the political landscape of Ecuadorian politics and has even evolved to become a movement labelled ‘Correism’, an indication of the impact Correa achieved in his presidential terms. However, the ex-president remains a largely controversial figure in the Ecuadorian collective and is a hate-him-or-love-him figure. During his terms, he received praise for raising the standard of living, increasing subsidies for the agricultural sector, as well as spending on the health and educational systems. Nonetheless, among his most controversial policies was the formation of a commission for regulating media content in the country, which many criticizing for being a restriction of freedom of speech.

One of the key major failures in Correa’s legacy was the appointment of Lenin Moreno as his successor for the presidential period of 2017-2021. In the 2017 elections, Lasso already ran for the presidency, facing off against Correa’s hand-picked successor. This saw a very close contest for president, but eventually, the people voted in favour of Moreno, largely because Correa supported him. But as soon as Correa left the country after Moreno’s victory, the new president made sure to distance himself from his predecessor and started a highly strategic political animosity campaign against Correa. Correa remained in the eye of the hurricane during the four years of Moreno’s mandate, and several accusations of corruption were made against him which ended up with him being sentenced to 8 years in prison. Consequently, many people started doubting the ex-president and losing faith in him and his policies; for others, this would only increase their hatred for Correa. Regardless of the reason, the decrease in support for Correa was a large factor that led to the defeat of the left and Arauz in the most recent elections, as Correa is still so associated with the left.

Not only did the appointment of Moreno as Correa’s successor in 2017 eventually lead to Correa’s image being considerably tarnished, but, while Correa is a controversial and divisive figure, most Ecuadorians agree that Lenin Moreno was one of the most unpopular presidents in recent Ecuadorian politics, significantly further tarnishing support for the left. With credibility of around 7% and popularity below 10%, Moreno most likely only won the presidency in 2017 as people wanted to keep Correa’s social policies and his 21st-century socialism. However, Moreno’s government later took a radical shift towards the right in an attempt to break away from Correa’s legacy and approached Lasso’s more right-wing political movement in an informal legislative alliance.

In sum, between 2017 and 2021, Moreno distanced himself from what Correa had achieved in his presidency and destroyed his political reputation. In this way, Moreno proposed a less-radicalized government which felt like a refreshing break from the over-10 years of leftist policies. However, Moreno advanced policies in support of economic elites, and changed the government’s approach to the International Monetary Fund for economic liberalization, a policy that is carried on by Lasso’s right-wing party.

A rupture in the Left

Fast-forward to the recent elections, what is probably the most prominent factor that further boosted Lasso’s leverage against Arauz for the 2021 presidential run-off was the extreme internal divide among the political left in Ecuador. Ecuador’s electoral system means that there are often two rounds in a presidential election, the first one including all the parties and then a second show off between the two most popular if no candidate gained enough votes in the first round, to decide who wins. During the first run-off of elections, Arauz was paradoxically the most voted candidate with more than 30% of the vote, placing him as the most probable winner in the second round. Lasso snatched second place at the very last minute with an extremely minimal difference of 0.5% of ballots in his favour against indigenous leader Yaku Perez (the more radical-ecological left candidate), who was therefore left out from the presidential run.

With a left-wing candidate in Arauz and his right-wing opponent in Lasso, the electorate environment was characterized by a very polarized vote. While in the first round of the elections the support gathered for all leftist movements combined achieved to win over two-thirds of the overall electoral base, two of the new great promises of Ecuadorian politics were the indigenous leftist movement led by Yaku Perez, and the progressive leftist movement led by businessman Xavier Hervas. Both candidates represented a new and refreshing type of Ecuadorian politician: likeable, inspired, and motivated. However, although both stood for a leftist movement, none chose to support Arauz’s leftist movement in the second round. While Hervas (who arrived in fourth place with a surprising 16% of national support) actually chose to endorse Lasso’s presidency, Yaku opted for the spoiled vote – invalidating the ballot by choosing neither of the two candidates. This was an extreme success as around 16% of those who went to exercise their right to vote in the second round chose to spoil it (1.6 million out of the total electoral base of nearly 11 million people). This result was particularly striking as the supporters for the spoilt vote showed to be four times greater than the difference between Arauz and Lasso, with the former achieving over 4.2 million votes (47.64%) and the latter 4.6 million votes (52.36%).

The fact that no other left-wing parties were willing to support Arauz in the second round for the presidency had a large impact on the outcomes of this election as it meant that many of those who were left-leaning, did not vote for the left-wing candidate.

What's Next?

Now that the presidential debacle is over, Lasso’s appointment to the Carondelet palace is the sign that the leftist movement initially created by Correa has been defeated. Although the president-elect achieved his long-last dream for the presidency (third time’s the charm!), the political environment of Ecuadorian politics is only getting tougher and more divisive, with the imminent priority being to unite a very polarized National Congress. Even in the defeat of Arauz, the Correa-endorsed party that supported him (UNES) was one of the most voted for the National Congress, achieving nearly 50 seats in the parliament, almost double of what Lasso’s political party achieved.

What is left to be seen is what alliances and bargains will be needed to overcome the political differences between the parties and it is pretty clear that Lasso will need all of his will and dedication to unite an extremely divided political environment that is still haunted by the figure of Rafael Correa and his loyalists.




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