Ecuador Heads to Presidential Runoff with Opposing Visions on the Ballot

Ecuadorian voters will now choose between two very distinct paths forward: a revival of social programs or more neoliberal economic policy.

August 21, 2023

Luisa González and Daniel Noboa will face off in the October 15, 2023 runoff election. (Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ecuador is headed to a runoff election between two candidates who promise very different visions for the future of the country.

Of the eight candidates competing in the August 20 election, Luisa González of former leftist president Rafael Correa’s Revolución Ciudadana (Citizen’s Revolution) party came out on top. But she will have to face off against right-wing business owner Daniel Noboa in a second round on October 15.

González received 33 percent of the vote—about where pre-election polls had placed her. Noboa, however, won a surprising 24 percent, significantly outperforming expectations that he would not make it to the second round. To have won outright, González would either have needed to reach 50 percent of the vote, or 40 percent with a 10-point lead over the closest competitor.

Like Correa, González is a progressive Keynesian on economic issues, but conservative on social ones. In particular, she is strongly opposed to abortion rights. If elected, González promises to use $2.5 billion from international reserves to shore up the struggling economy and bring back Correa’s social programs that led to plunging rates of poverty and inequality.

Noboa is the son of the conservative and wealthy banana tycoon Álvaro Noboa, who in past decades launched five failed campaigns for the presidency. If elected, Noboa would represent a continuation and perhaps intensification of current conservative president Guillermo Lasso’s neoliberal economic policies—the same ones that Lasso failed to implement in his two years in office and that ultimately led to his ouster.

Noboa’s running mate Verónica Abad is a conservative anti-abortion activist from Cuenca who is a strong supporter of Trump and Bolsonaro. She has appeared on social media wearing a Trump “Make American Great Again” (MAGA) hat

While Correa and his Revolución Ciudadana—and thus by extension González—enjoy the highest levels of popular support in the country, their negatives also make it the hardest for her to win the presidency.

On the campaign trail in 2006 and then in office for 10 years as president, Correa famously tangled badly with Ecuador’s powerful social movements and others to his left. In the 2021 elections, Lasso leveraged this opposition to go from less than 20 percent of the vote in the first round to defeating Revolución Ciudadana’s candidate Andrés Arauz in the second.

Arauz is now running for vice president with González on the Revolución Ciudadana ticket.

The biggest losers in the August 20 race were the Indigenous environmentalist Yaku Pérez and the Indigenous-aligned Pachakutik political movement. Unlike in the 2021 presidential race, this time Pérez did not enjoy the formal backing of Pachakutik or its social movement wing CONAIE.

Pérez scored strong support in the 2021 race—barely missing a second-place finish that would have placed him in the second and definitive round against Arauz. This time, pre-election polling had given him a very viable chance of making the second round, but he ultimately polled less than 4 percent of the vote.

Likewise, Pachakutik surpassed expectations in February’s local elections and became the second or third most potent political force in the country. This time it hardly registered in the congressional races, in which Revolución Ciudadana led voter preferences.

The election comes after the deeply unpopular Lasso dissolved the National Assembly on May 17, triggering early presidential and congressional elections.

Facing certain impeachment over his mishandling of the country’s affairs, Lasso invoked an innovative provision in the 2008 Constitution known as “muerte cruzada” or “mutually assured death” that allows the president to dissolve parliament and rule by decree for six months until new presidential and legislative elections are held.

The winner of the October 15 contest will take office on October 26 and serve the remaining 17 months of Lasso’s mandate. The next regularly scheduled elections in 2025 will select a new president.

The Assassination of Fernando Villavicencio

The presidential race was shaken up on the evening of August 9, only 10 days before Ecuadorians went to the polls, when the candidate Fernando Villavicencio was cut down in a hail of bullets as he exited a campaign event at the Colegio Anderson in the northern part of Quito.

Questions and conspiracies immediately spun around Villavicencio’s assassination, including why he did not have better security protection, who might have ordered the hit, and who would most benefit from his elimination from the race.

Video shows police officers kicking the alleged assassin and dragging him to a police station, rather than a hospital, where he died unattended from his wounds. Two other alleged assailants escaped on a motorcycle. The police quickly arrested six individuals—all Colombians—who they charged as responsible for the murder.

Some conservative pundits immediately pointed the finger at former president Correa, of whom Villavicencio was an ardent critic. But running in the middle of the eight-candidate pack, Villavicencio presented little threat to González, the race’s frontrunner. With conservative opposition to González fragmented between seven rival candidates, Villavicencio was unlikely to advance to the second round.

Instead, Villavicencio’s assassination triggered an outpouring of sympathy for his campaign and granted Christian Zurita, a journalist who stood in for him on the ballot, a level of support that he would not otherwise have enjoyed. Although not enough to push Zurita into the second round, the ticket came in third place with about 16 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, congressional candidates with Villavicencio’s Movimiento Construye polled much better than expected, making the party the second strongest force (after Revolución Ciudadana) in the new National Assembly.

Villavicencio’s assassination also played into the law-and-order narrative of other conservative candidates that otherwise had trouble gaining traction in the campaign. In particular, it benefited Jan Topic, who presents himself as an Ecuadorian version of El Salvador’s authoritarian president Nayib Bukele. Topic, who had been languishing in the polls, exploited the assassination to increase his calls for hardline mano dura  (iron fist) policies against drug smugglers. He came in fourth place with 15 percent—just barely behind Villavicencio/Zurita.

For decades, nestled between Colombia and Peru and their problems of civils wars and drug trafficking, Ecuador had been a relatively peaceful island. Although political assassinations—including of presidential candidates—were all too common in Colombia, they were exceedingly rare in Ecuador.

While it can be difficult to distinguish between political acts and common crime, it appears that in recent months politically motivated attacks have been on the rise. On July 23, the mayor of the port city of Manta, Agustín Intriago, was shot dead while inspecting a public works project. Days earlier, Rider Sánchez, a congressional candidate for the coastal province of Esmeraldas, was also murdered. On August 14, less than a week after Villavicencio’s assassination, Pedro Briones, a local leader of Revolución Ciudadana in Esmeraldas, was also shot and killed.

In February’s local elections, assassins murdered the mayoral candidate Omar Menéndez in the city of Puerto López just hours before polls opened. (He won the race anyway.) Two weeks earlier, the candidate for mayor of Salinas, Julio César Farachio, was also shot dead.

In the aftermath of Villavicencio’s assassination, other presidential and congressional candidates claimed to be targets of attacks, although it remained unclear whether those were politically motivated.

Crime and Insecurity

Ecuador has recently faced a surge in drug trafficking and violent crime, which is a significant reversal from when Correa was president. By the time he left office in 2017, Ecuador’s homicide rate had dropped to a historic low of just 5.84 per 100,000 people, among the lowest in Latin America. By 2022, that rate had more than quadrupled to 26.1 per 100,000.

A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) finds that the return to International Monetary Fund (IMF) dictates during the administrations of Lasso and his predecessor, Lenín Moreno, reversed the significant gains that Correa had made during his 10 years in office. As a result of slashed social spending, poverty and economic inequality as well as crime and insecurity have increased, and health outcomes have worsened.

Ecuador now has the fourth highest homicide rate in Latin America—behind only Venezuela, Honduras, and Colombia. Prisons have become particularly dangerous, with at least 400 inmates killed in prison riots since 2021.

Multiple factors and explanations account for turning Ecuador from one of the safest to one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas.

As causations for the increase in insecurity, many pundits point to factors such as the 2016 peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that loosened control over drug trafficking routes, as well the Covid-19 pandemic that disrupted the fabric of Ecuadorian society.

Ecuador is no stranger to the drug trade, but not in terms of production or trafficking. For decades, some analysts have pointed to Quito’s booming financial sector as partially due to the laundering of profits from the drug trade.

According to Colombian president Gustavo Petro, the current increase in drug trafficking in Ecuador is because of the collapse of the U.S. cocaine market, which has been replaced with the much more deadly fentanyl boom. As a result, trafficking routes that previously took cocaine from Colombia northward through Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico to the United States, have now turned southward.

Petro said that most cocaine production has shifted to a 10-kilometer strip in Colombia along the country’s western border with Ecuador. From there, the cocaine is shipped eastward through Ecuador to Asia and Australia.

It appears that the incendiary gang battles that Ecuador is currently suffering is for control over these new and highly lucrative drug trafficking routes.

Against this backdrop, some quickly assumed that a drug trafficking organization that Villavicencio had stridently criticized had ordered the hit. In a video, heavily armed figures with balaclava-covered faces immediately claimed responsibility on behalf of one such group, Los Lobos. But then a second video appeared claiming to be from the “real” Los Lobos. With their faces plainly visible, they denied culpability. They accused Los Choneros, a competing drug trafficking organization, of attempting to frame them for the murder.

In February 2021, Los Lobos broke from Los Choneros, which at the time was the largest and most violent of the criminal bands in Ecuador, after the killing of Jorge Luis Zambrano, alias “Rasquiña” or “JL,” the leader of Los Choneros. A rupture of an alliance between Los Lobos and another group known as Tiguerones on July 25 of this year led to a prison massacre.

On August 12, authorities moved Adolfo Macías, alias “Fito,” the leader of Los Choneros, from a low-security to a maximum-security prison in Guayaquil. The government mobilized 4,000 soldiers and police officers for the transfer. They raided the jail where he had been held and seized weapons, ammunition, and explosives. Days before his assassination, Villavicencio had accused Macías of threatening him and his campaign team.

These competing charges and claims of responsibility raise the possibility that the assassination had nothing to do with the electoral campaign or of removing someone who was critical of their operations, but rather to sully the name of a competing organization or to gain a certain level of street cred among their followers.

Ironically, among those who have the most to lose from Villavicencio’s assassination and subsequent calls for a Bukele-style administration in Ecuador are the gangs that allegedly ordered the hit. Sometimes an action which appears completely logical and rational on one level is absolutely the wrong thing to do on another.

Landmark Victory for Yasuní

Also on the August 20 ballot were two environmental measures that received strong support.

The first was a referendum to halt drilling at the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oilfield, also known as oil block 43, which lies in the ecologically sensitive Yasuní National Park.

Located in the eastern Amazon, Yasuní is one of the world’s richest pockets of biodiversity. It is also home to the Waorani nation and the Tagaeri and Taromenane, the last remaining Indigenous communities in the country who have chosen to live in voluntary isolation.

For 10 years, the activist movement Yasunidos sought to bring this referendum to a vote. In a six-month period a decade ago, 1,400 volunteers collected more than 757,000 signatures, almost 200,000 more than required to trigger a ballot measure. After lengthy legal battles, Ecuador’s highest court finally ruled in May that the vote could take place. The state oil company Petroecuador will now have a year and a half to wind down operations. Opponents claim that Ecuador will lose billions of dollars in revenue due to this decision.

Residents of the Metropolitan District of Quito also voted overwhelmingly to ban metallic mining in the Chocó Andino, a vast area of land near the capital.

Curiously, the passage of both measures did not translate into electoral support for Yaku Pérez’s Indigenous environmentalist candidacy. Apparently, Villavicencio’s assassination changed political narratives to the point where Pérez’s promises of a so-called “third way” that was neither Correa nor Lasso no longer had much resonance among the voters.

In 2021, the political force that Pérez represented boycotted the second round of the election instead of supporting the candidacy of Revolución Ciudadana’s Arauz. In effect, the boycott gave the election to Lasso. This time, neither Pérez nor Pachakutik are positioned to play kingmaker.

An open question now is whether the Trump- or Bolsonaro-style rightwing law-and-order populism that fourth-place-finisher Topic represents will rally behind the traditional oligarchy that Noboa embodies. If so, that will likely give Noboa the margin necessary to defeat González—as happened with Lasso in 2021—and move forward with a neoliberal agenda.

Alternatively, González promises to return Ecuador to the glory days of Correa’s decade in power. To achieve that she will need to thread the tricky needle of drawing on the strong support that the former president still enjoys while also bringing in those who he has alienated to the point that they have promised never to support him.

Marc Becker is the author among other works of Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador's Modern Indigenous Movements (2008) and Pachakutik: Indigenous movements and electoral politics in Ecuador (2011). He is currently writing a book on Philip Agee and the CIA in Ecuador in the early 1960s.

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