How the Right Returned to Power in Ecuador

Widespread resistance to Correísmo and the Indigenous movement’s promotion of the null vote created the conditions for Guillermo Lasso’s victory in the presidential run-off.

April 15, 2021

Ecuadorian president-elect Guillermo Lasso of the Movimiento CREO party. (Guillermo Lasso Twitter)

This article was originally published in Spanish in Nueva Sociedad.

The 2021 electoral process will go down as an anomaly: rather than the two officially designated by the electoral authority, three candidates ended up participating in the second round. In effect, reports of fraud made by Yaku Pérez, the candidate for the Pachakutik movement, inserted him on the ballot as a de facto third contender. His decision did not tip the scales in favor of one of the two finalists on April 11, but rather his invitation to cast a null vote competed with both candidates for votes. With 97 percent of votes counted, Guillermo Lasso of the Creating Opportunities movement (CREO) prevailed with 52.52 percent of the vote against 47.48 percent for Correísta candidate Andrés Arauz, while the null vote reached about 17 percent (it had been higher than normal in the first round as well).

Although it was formally impossible to prove claims of fraud in the first round, there were signs that fed doubts. It is worth mentioning the most relevant ones. On election night February 7, 2021, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE) announced in a national address that Pérez was in second place behind Arauz, a former Correa official. Until the next day, the results showed a trend in favor of Pachakutik; however, this lead was reversed when ballot boxes from Guayaquil, a conservative bastion with a terrible electoral transparency record, were counted at the last minute. Despite the agreement made on February 12 in front of elections officials and international delegations, Lasso refused to open the ballot boxes where irregularities were detected, after 612 additional votes for Pérez were found in just 28 ballot boxes. The CNE did not move forward to open the 20,000 disputed ballots. Why didn’t this technical tie between Pérez and Lasso warrant a more meticulous revision of the results?

During the three weeks following the first round of the elections, Pachakutik filed legal cases that forced definitions on the part of economic power groups, traditional political parties, large media outlets, and the electoral authorities. In other words, the political system. The electoral success of the Indigenous movement disarmed all forecasts and political calculations. And not only this: it threatened the existing power dynamic. Even though Yaku Pérez, in a strict sense, cannot be characterized as an outsider, he does represent a project proposing crucial alternatives, including opposition to the extractivist model and territorial autonomy linked to plurinationalism, which imply a serious questioning of the logic of capitalist domination.

Most striking was the alignment of the Correista candidate and hierarchy with Lasso’s strategy. Ex-president Correa weighed in from Belgium against the reports of fraud and supported the CNE’s final decision. At first glance, the explanation of this posture is simple: in simulations of the second round, Pérez would roundly beat Arauz, who had a better shot against a conservative banker like Lasso. But there are several other elements that complicate the tacit agreement between the Right and Correismo.

The electoral success of Pachakutik in the first round (the party will have the second largest block in the National Assembly) and the overtones of irregularities established a clear break from politics as usual. If Lasso appeared as an expression of the old oligarchic politics, Arauz manifested a politics in outright decomposition. At no point could he distance himself from the image of corruption attached to Correismo. Furthermore, during the campaign revelations emerged that linked the candidate to irregular acts. These include signing agreements for an arts festival in the city of Loja that had excessive costs and disadvantageous oil contracts with China.

Under these conditions, it was inevitable that Pérez would emerge as the anti-systemic candidate, catalyzing the exasperation and disappointment of a large part of the population, and synthesizing various political agendas. In effect, the Pachakutik candidate broadly surpassed block voting from leftist social organizations and an ethnic identity vote. His penetration into areas historically closed off to an Indigenous candidate, such as some coastal provinces, reflects a drastic change in the electoral behavior of different social sectors. Of the 27 Pachakutik assembly members elected, two are from the [coastal] provinces of Guayas and El Oro, a result that a short time ago would have been unthinkable.

In the end, claims of fraud went from being demands for rights and electoral transparency to being a strategic position, a way of questioning an exclusionary and antidemocratic political system. The null vote, the position taken by the majority of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), was the obvious and coherent conclusion to this questioning, because it pointed to the illegitimacy of the other two candidates. That is, to the illegitimacy of the whole system. By the same token, it is not a coincidence that all the establishment voices condemned this decision in unison. The spokespersons of Lasso and Arauz each argued against the null ballot campaign because supposedly it would favor their rival. The null vote thus ended up turning Pérez into a third excluded candidate in the second round.

Lasso Reverses the Trend

In this context, and in light of the April 11 results, one initial takeaway is that the Right—not Correísta populism—was better prepared. Lasso’s stubbornness in qualifying for the second round, including going back on his word, can be justified: he knew that despite the ample margin of the first round (32.7 percent to 19.7 percent), Arauz was still a vulnerable opponent. Not only because of his weak messaging, but because Lasso campaign strategists, with Jaime Durán Barba in charge, had a few aces up their sleeve. Let’s take a look.

The turning point in the presidential race occurred during a debate between the two remaining candidates. Lasso’s camp knew that Arauz had overwhelming limitations in this area. His mediocre performance in the first compulsory debate before the first round foreshadowed the disadvantage for the Correísmo candidate. In addition, Arauz declined to participate in a subsequent debate organized by the media, which showed his inability to contend with the press. Despite being a poor candidate, Lasso was able to influence the results in his favor. Moreover, he used deceitful rhetoric which proved to be devastating. The phrase, “Andrés, don’t lie again,” which he repeated throughout the debate, quickly flooded social media just as it did in the political arena.

The idea of a candidate who didn’t tell the truth was cleverly deployed. The revelation of a working relationship between the Lenín Moreno government and Arauz as an official at the Central Bank, and Arauz’s attempts to deny this with misleading arguments, were weaponized through Lasso’s dirty campaign tactics. Along with this revelation, the hefty severance that came with his resignation from this position, right in the middle of a pandemic and after having spent several years on leave without pay, was used against Arauz. The image of a pipón (bureaucratic parasite in popular slang) was devastating. The failed agreement with Conaie was the final slip-up. Conaie leader Jaime Vargas’s decision to throw the organization’s support behind Arauz was publicized with much fanfare. But the majority of the Indigenous confederation quickly denied the decision.

Lasso more effectively wielded dirty campaign tactics based on a simple equation: It was difficult to air dirty laundry about a right-wing candidate who the country had known about since his first electoral campaign. That Lasso is a banker, a millionaire, owns properties, is neoliberal, ultraconservative, collaborated with various governments, supported pro-business policies...nothing new about which to generate a further negative image. Some communications intended to attack him even had the reverse effect and had to be retracted.

Conversely, Arauz was very vulnerable in this realm. His main dilemma was to try to distance himself from the liabilities of Rafael Correa’s government without breaking with Correísmo. His opponent skillfully took advantage of this anchor in the past, to the extent that it robbed Arauz of the sheen of youthfulness and renewal with which he sought to position his campaign. This was also impacted by the presence of Pérez, who appeared not only as a real alternative but also as presenting a renewal of political discourse and practice. Pachakutik strongly occupied the space of the Left and relegated Arauz to the space of the traditional forces. On April 11, Arauz won in the coastal region, but he lost in the highlands and Amazon.

This last point is closely tied to another factor that was impossible for Arauz campaign strategists to manage: the presence, all the way from Belgium, of ex-president Correa. This factor had been anticipated and analyzed in previous campaigns. For example, after the 2014 electoral defeat, when Alianza País lost the most important mayoralties in the country, especially in Quito. In the 2021 elections, the image of a candidate under the complete control of Correa, along with the significant resistance that he has inspired in recent years, became a recipe for disaster. The resulting turmoil turned out to be unwieldy: the tangible base that provided Arauz with the Correísmo vote became, in turn, the barrier that prevented him from surpassing the 50 percent threshold of votes. 

For a few weeks, obvious attempts to have Correa keep a low profile were unsuccessful. But among Lasso’s ranks, there was a clear awareness of this opportunity. A good chunk of their strategy revolved around attacking the ex-president to force him to meddle in the campaign and lose votes for Arauz. The Correísta candidate’s half-hearted attempt to downplay his mentor’s caustic remarks and aggressive attacks led to a catastrophic meltdown. Perhaps the most well-known episode was the assertion that “hate is no longer in style,” with which Arauz tried to distance himself from the Correísta past. It ended up being what is known in case law as an admission of guilt, profoundly detrimental to the strategy of building a fresh, reinvented image for the candidate.

The Left After April 11

After 35 years of traditional democracy, a natural representative of the business sector arrives directly to government. Unlike León Febres Cordero, whose victory in 1984 revived Ecuadorian oligarchy’s old-fashioned regime during the absolute peak of neoliberalism, Lasso faces a multifaceted crisis that will be difficult to resolve. Even just the prolongation of the Covid-19 pandemic implies an ongoing political stalemate.

The next government has been adequately transparent about its approach: opening to foreign investment, striking a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), promoting the private sector in the economy, prioritizing metal mining, easing labor restrictions, deepening an economic model based on natural resources extraction...which is to say, a complete synthesis of neoliberal policies and strategies. Nevertheless, conditions are less than ideal for implementing this model in a country that uses the U.S. dollar. The popular uprising of October 2019 showed the persistence of deep structural problems that are impossible to resolve through a liberal economy. The Indigenous movement’s demands (plurinational state) and the other social movements (diverse rights) are front and center.

Amid these circumstances, the symbolic weight of the null vote will set the terms for the upcoming political conflict. The shadow of electoral fraud and the scant legitimacy of the next administration make the Indigenous movement a fundamental political player. Along with the staleness of sociocristianismo, Pachakutik is the only political force that has managed to survive the collapse of political parties while also expanding their base. Moreover, they can combine placing pressure on parliament with social mobilization. For now, they have recouped the banner of the Left from Correísmo.

This allows the Indigenous movement to influence the upcoming political landscape more strongly. Against the fragile hegemony of the Right, which no longer has a majority in parliament, and the gradual decline of Correísmo, Pachakutik and social movements can further the possibility of a third way that bypasses each of these political blocs. There is a government program (Minka for life) and an agenda with strategic threads (plurinationality, environmental defense, women’s rights) that link this sector to a wave of opposition to a stagnant political system.

From the beginning, territorial autonomy for Indigenous peoples and nations, restrictions to damage done to the environment or the decriminalization of abortion, to name a few of the most pressing issues, have represented a battleground with the Right and with Correísta populism. The results of the second round allow for a consolidation of this option.

Nonetheless, there is a complex political landscape. Correísmo will not be deterred in its attempt to position itself as the opposition to the Lasso government and rehabilitate its diminished progressive image. It is their last chance to avoid fracturing and disappearing in the next four years. From claiming victory in the first round to losing the election, there is an immense chasm.

Juan Cuvi has a master’s in development and writes for various digital media outlets. He was a leader of the movement Alfaro Vive Carajo. He is a member of the National Anticorruption Commission.

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