Ecuador Headed for Early Elections After President Dissolves Legislature

To head off an impeachment vote, Guillermo Lasso chose the nuclear option. Amid polarization and a protracted political stalemate, what comes next remains uncertain.

May 19, 2023

Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso in 2022. (Presidency of the Republic of Ecuador / Flickr / Public Domain 1.0)

Leer este artículo en español.

On May 17, President Guillermo Lasso dissolved Ecuador’s National Assembly and communicated the move to the National Electoral Council, which has seven days to call new elections for both the legislative and executive branches. The mechanism, popularly known as “muerte cruzada,” invokes a clause in the 2008 Constitution and may be activated only once during the first three years of a term by the executive. The officials elected in the snap elections will serve only for the remainder of the current term—that is, for a little less than two years, until May 2025.

The president has wielded the muerte cruzada measure as a threat on at least four previous occasions. He never followed through, however, because polls repeatedly confirmed that in new elections neither the governing party nor the president himself had the slightest chance of repeating their 2021 electoral victory. That remains the case today.

Lasso’s decision to dissolve the Assembly came amid an impeachment trial the opposition majority in parliament had launched against him. The day before, on May 16, two Assembly members serving as rapporteurs in the trial heard arguments for and against the impeachment. Lasso himself was also present and defended himself—in a 50 minute speech—against the charges of political responsibility for having allowed embezzlement to continue under his watch.

It was not clear what the outcome would be in the final vote, which would require a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, or 92 out of 137 votes, to secure the impeachment. In a key vote on May 9, 2023, the Assembly decided to continue the impeachment process despite an unfavorable report from the Legislative Oversight Commission, the body in charge of documenting the accusations and the defense, that recommended against impeachment. The decision to move forward won with a majority of 88 votes—insufficient for impeachment, but quite comfortable. On the other hand, in the May 14 vote to elect the seven members of the Legislative Administration Council, the Assembly’s governing body, the winning opposition candidates each obtained between 94 and 100 votes. It is likely that Lasso's government calculated a defeat in the impeachment vote, and that even if it won, the next two years of the administration would be unmanageable with such a large opposition commanding the legislature.

Rupture and Stalemate

How did the government reach such an impasse? Since 2017, Ecuador has been in a situation marked by what we could call the aftermath of post-progressivism. Former President Rafael Correa's decision not to run for a fourth presidential term in 2017 and to support the only candidate of his party with a shot at winning, his former vice president Lenín Moreno, and the subsequent rupture between the two leaders, opened a protracted political-electoral standoff. In a situation similar to that of Fujimorismo in neighboring Peru, Correismo has since had sufficiently faithful electoral support to make it the leading parliamentary force, and since 2023, the leading force in local governments. But it also faces a rejection vote that is still the wide majority, which has so far prevented Correismo from winning in races that go to a second round. In Ecuador, mayors and provincial prefects are elected in a single round, but presidential elections involve a runoff.

Unlike in Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, or Bolivia, the Ecuadorian version of progressivism faced firm opposition from the country’s popular organizations, from the central trade unions to the powerful Indigenous movement, led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). Unlike in those other countries, this left-wing opposition to the progressive government was not only led by critical intellectuals but also held a notable capacity for street mobilization. This opposition also became, beginning in 2021, an alternative electoral option thanks to the powerful and successful October 2019 protests against fuel price hikes and the presidential candidacy of Indigenous leader Yaku Pérez, who almost secured a spot in the runoff against the Correa-aligned candidate Andrés Araúz.

After a brief period of convergence at the beginning of Correa’s administration between 2007 and 2009, the government and these popular movements suffered an irreconcilable rupture. The breakdown had origins in a varied set of governmental decisions ranging from the prohibition of unionism in the public sector (the only place where it was powerful), to the determined drive toward mining exploitation in Indigenous and campesino territories, to the criminalization of protest and social mobilization. Above all, Correa's state project included the construction of an executive power without counterbalances, led by a group of highly specialized technocrats.

In contrast, the vision of a plurinational state outlined by Indigenous organizations, the undisputed leaders of this alternative political coalition that distanced itself from the Correa government, called for the creation of shared negotiation and decision-making bodies between the government and community-based, self-managed organizations. Such a project would reinvent the neo-corporative modes of participation by which local Indigenous governments have functioned—with ups and downs and great diversity—since 1996.

The rupture between Correismo and the popular Left, therefore, did not lie in personal feuds or power disputes among leaders, but in a real distancing within the social base. Voters that supported Indigenous candidates in the first round of the 2021 election preferred to vote in the second round for Lasso rather than for the young and unknown candidate anointed by Correa. Meanwhile, in the 2023 municipal elections, an alliance between the Indigenous party Pachakutik and the Rafael Correa-led Citizens’ Revolution Movement coalition did not emerge in any of the country’s  221 municipalities or in 1,140 rural parishes. That path seems to have been ruled out.

Uncertain Paths Forward

The result of the political stalemate in place since 2017 includes the fact that the pro-business political forces of Ecuador's traditional Right lack social and electoral support. Lasso won the second round in 2021 thanks to the majority anti-Correista vote, but his party won just 12 of 137 seats in the National Assembly. In 2017, Lasso’s party had won 34 legislative seats, forming the leading opposition to Correa’s government. Today, opposition forces are divided.

The other major electoral and political force of Ecuador’s traditional Right, the Social Christian Party (PSC), which supported Lasso’s candidacy in 2021, ended up forging a stable parliamentary alliance with Correismo to oppose Lasso and jointly orchestrate the impeachment trial to remove him from office. Unlike the Correa-aligned faction, the PSC always opposed the "muerte cruzada" option and the convening of early elections. From the beginning of his mandate, Lasso’s government therefore has faced the enormous political challenge of creating the kind of hegemony that Álvaro Uribe managed to construct in Colombia and that lasted 20 years.

But Lasso's administration turned out to be disastrous, unpopular, and inefficient. In spite of the favorable economic situation due to the rise in oil prices as a result of the war in Ukraine, which brought oil prices close to $100 per barrel, the atrocious management of public works, the poor management of hospitals, and the weak economic recovery in a society hit hard by the Covid-19 catastrophe, have together brought his approval levels to historic lows of 13 percent.

At the same time, since the end of Moreno's administration, Ecuadorian society has been stunned by an unprecedented public security crisis. The homicide rate has risen to figures unheard of since statistics have been recorded. This hemorrhage of violence seems to be connected to changes along the Colombian border following the 2016 peace agreement that led to the withdrawal of the FARC, which had set the rules of the game between various irregular armed groups and factions in the area. In addition, the unprecedented massacres in Ecuadorian prisons and homicides carried out by organized crime hitmen, especially in coastal cities, have unmasked a government lacking answers or ideas.

At the time of writing, it is not yet clear how the different political movements will act in the face of this new situation. On Thursday, the Constitutional Court rejected challenges to the muerte cruzada measure, clearing the way for elections to be scheduled. A concerted and successful opposition is unlikely, and it is difficult to conceive of anyone mobilizing to defend the Assembly or the government. The atmosphere of insecurity, crime, and economic desperation could encourage voters to seek authoritarian solutions that would give the impression of privileging order at all costs in the midst of disorder, anomie, and social fragmentation. But it is not clear who could credibly be up to this risky task in the short term. In this polarized environment, a pathway of moderation and “middle ground” could also emerge, challenging expectations. There will be those who will try that card.

Save for the quick emergence of a kind of Ecuadorian "Bukele," the main electoral options that seem to be on the table as of now are Correismo or Pachakutik, the electoral movement promoted by CONAIE. Correismo does not have the problem of unity; its extreme centralization in the figure of Correa assures quick decisions and disciplined compliance. Its primary challenge is to neutralize the widespread rejection it continues to encounter among half the electorate, especially in the Sierra and the Amazon. Pachakutik, on the other hand, is a heterogeneous movement, based mainly in rural communities, which has managed to grow its reputation among an impoverished and jaded electorate. Its main challenge is to achieve unity in the midst of a situation that demands quick decisions and to agree on viable candidates for a program of radical change. The outlook is open, but the options are not infinite.

Pablo Ospina Peralta is a professor at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar and member of the Commission of Experience, Faith and Politics.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.