Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has marched from one victory to the next. In 2006, he won the presidency, campaigning squarely on a promise to rewrite the country’s Constitution. Two years later, despite stiff opposition from Congress, the Constitution was resoundingly approved by a voter referendum. The new Constitution required new elections, so Correa again ran for president. He won in a landslide on April 26.
But Ecuador’s leading social movements remain skeptical about whether his re-election will translate into the deep social changes promised by the country’s new Constitution. Ecuador’s indigenous federations are still reeling from a bitter fight over a controversial mining law that the President pushed through the interim Congress in January. Many indigenous groups withheld their support for Correa in the April general elections, possibly costing his party a majority in the newly established unicameral National Assembly.
Nonetheless, Correa achieved a feat unprecedented since the 1979 return to democracy: He won a majority of votes (52 percent) in the first round of the presidential election, nearly doubling the amount received by second-place finisher, Lucio Gutiérrez. Correa’s margin of victory can be understood as a combination of factors: public support for his political project, enthusiasm for the relative political stability that accompanied his first term, a divided opposition, and the disrepute of traditional political parties widely perceived as irretrievably corrupt and unaccountable. Indeed, Correa has built his political persona by railing against both the old partidocracia (party-ocracy) and neoliberal economic policies, while shrewdly positioning his party, Movement for a Proud and Sovereign Country (MPAIS or Alianza PAIS), against this old guard.
In April’s National Assembly elections, MPAIS slightly stumbled, falling just shy of the 50 percent plus one vote mark. But the party is by far the largest single political force. Electoral authorities are still compiling the final tally, but it appears MPAIS will secure around 60 of the 124 seats. In passing legislation, Correa will likely have to work with a smattering of smaller leftist parties, which hold an estimated 15 seats. The remaining 50 seats are mostly divided between a handful of conservative parties.
In achieving his many victories, Correa has displayed a combative “with-me-or-against-me” approach in carrying through his agenda. One of his more crushing victories was against the former Congress, which was stonewalling the creation of a Constitutional Assembly. After a 10-month feud, Correa emerged victorious when the MPAIS-dominated Constituent Assembly dissolved the Congress and assumed law-making powers.
But his combative approach is not limited to dealings with the reactionary right. The President has similarly tried to steamroll progressive forces opposing his policies.
Correa’s already tenuous relationship with indigenous and environmental social movements deteriorated when he proposed a new mining law. The legislation offered mining companies unprecedented large-scale open pit mining concessions throughout the country, including on indigenous lands and environmentally sensitive areas. Correa pushed the law through the interim Congress in January 2009, sparking widespread protests. Activists complained the law would negatively impact many rural and indigenous communities and that it was approved without public debate or transparency.
A broad-based grassroots coalition emerged in opposition to the mining law, including the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), environmental groups, human rights organizations, and youth and urban sectors. Humberto Cholango, president of a CONAIE-affiliated indigenous organization, captured the sentiment against the law in a written statement: “We reject the anti-democratic attitude of the national government and the legislative commission for closing off dialogue, denying a national debate, and rushing through the approval of the mining law, which promotes a model based on the pillaging of natural resources and that favors transnational corporations.”
In the view of these groups, the Correa administration is taking a page from Ecuador’s neoliberal regimes in prioritizing the interests of foreign investors over local people. Popular mobilization escalated on January 20, as opponents to the mining law launched a national “Day of Mobilization for Life” in which tens of thousands participated in marches, roadblocks, and hunger strikes across Ecuador.
The government responded by arresting protesters, and firing bullets and teargas, injuring dozens. Correa dismissed the protesting groups as an “infantile left” made up of “fundamentalists” that cannot be allowed to rise up against his program. Opposition groups countered that Correa’s aggressive posturing and use of force was effectively criminalizing dissent. Finally, in a move widely perceived as an act of retaliation, the government revoked the legal status of Acción Ecológica, a prominent environmental organization that had played a visible role in the protests. (The group’s status was only reinstated after an international campaign of solidarity was launched.)
The mining conflict hardened left-wing opposition toward Correa in the run up to the April elections. Ecuador’s leading indigenous federations gave particularly harsh rebukes. Cholango claimed, “We are not going to support any presidential candidate, because none represent a real alternative for the country.” CONAIE’s vice president Miguel Guatemal similarly commented, “This is a racist and rude government, and in the coming elections we will withdraw our support.”
Although opposition to Correa’s mining law may have been a factor in denying him a majority in the National Assembly, his party should be able to steer its legislative agenda by forming a coalition with one or more small parties of the left. Correa’s need to negotiate with other progressive forces may provide social movements with an avenue to influence the administration’s program and policies.
Jason Tockman is a NACLA Research Associate.