The Victory of Businessman Daniel Noboa in Ecuador

After a meteoric rise amid an exceptionally violent campaign, a young political outsider beat Correismo once again, ushering in an uncertain interim government.

October 20, 2023

President-elect Daniel Nobua Azín at the August 2022 Session No. 791 of the Plenary of the National Assembly (Christian Medina / Asamblea Nacional / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

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For the second time in a row, a businessman and heir to a banana fortune has defeated the presidential candidate forged under the leadership of former president Rafael Correa. In the October 15 vote, overshadowed by the country's recent security crisis, center-right candidate Daniel Noboa won 51.8 percent of the vote to Luisa González's 48.2 percent.

The surprising territorial distribution of the vote between 2021 and 2023 reveals many paradoxes. Noboa was a semi-unknown candidate, a green and young parliamentarian representing a discredited legislative branch. The reputation that preceded him was that of his father, the banana magnate Álvaro Noboa Pontón, who had unsuccessfully run five times as presidential candidate. Noboa was the great surprise of the first round of voting, an event shaken by the unthinkable murder of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio at the hands of Colombian hitmen on August 9, just days before the August 20 elections.

Something like this had not happened in Ecuador since presidential candidate Abdón Calderón Muñoz was assassinated in December of 1978. Calderón was killed under orders of the government minister of the military junta in power at the time.

Days before, the mayor of the port city of Manta, another outspoken Correa opponent, like Villavicencio, had been murdered in a similar incident. In the midst of that commotion, the presidential debate of August 13 attracted an inordinate amount of attention. Noboa stood out for his calm and moderate demeanor, precise in articulating the measures he would adopt. Surprisingly, he expressed support for the popular consultation to halt oil exploitation in Yasuní National Park, based on arguments of economic efficiency.

His campaign had been, until then, a series of discreet tours through the most impoverished territories of the country, handing out food, medicine, and offering free medical care in a mobile hospital owned by the foundation run by his mother, Annabella Azín. The result was a meteoric rise in voter support during the last week of an exceptionally volatile campaign.

Shifting Territorial Allegiances

As a loyal acolyte, Correa's candidate was not a surprise. González, a second-tier official in Correa’s administration and a representative in the National Assembly since 2021, was unknown even in the eyes of journalists covering legislative news because she spoke little; she only stood out for her opposition in 2022 to the decriminalization of abortion in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape. She was accompanied on the presidential ticket by Andrés Arauz, also a Correa-era official and a presidential candidate backed by Correa in 2021.

In the presidential election, no one voted specifically for her; her support was entirely due to her mentor, Correa. Yet in the first round, González obtained fewer votes in her home province of Manabí than Arauz earned there in 2021. She obtained slightly more votes in the Sierra and in the Amazon, and overall garnered fewer votes from women than from men.

The central axis of her campaign was the memory of the happy times before the betrayal of Lenín Moreno, Correa’s former vice president who succeeded him as president in 2017. González’s slogan in the face of every programmatic question consisted of affirming that "we already did it; we will do it again."

Her basic gamble was that since the calamitous post-Correa administrations were so disastrous, anti-Correa sentiments should have been weakened. And indeed, the passage of time combined with the ineffectiveness and insensitivity of the Moreno and Lasso governments showed this to be so.

Noboa started the second round campaign with less resistance than he had faced earlier in the campaign and, according to several polls, with a lead of between 10 and 12 points. He ended with less than a four point advantage. The primary fear of the electorate is a possible reincarnation of Lasso's government, which has been characterized by inaction, ineptitude, and ineffectiveness.

Perhaps the greatest paradox is that Noboa's vote came mainly from the regions and areas that in 2021 had voted for the Indigenous candidate Yaku Pérez and the social-democratic party Democratic Left in what appeared an impressive resurrection of the center-left. These regions, mostly located in the Sierra and the Amazon, were historically dominated by center and left parties, and Correa himself won his first election there in November 2006. It was precisely these provinces that eventually handed him and his allies two successive defeats in 2021 and 2023.

Inversely, his party is now fundamentally coastal. Its most loyal electoral strongholds are situated in areas where more conservative parties, such as the Social Christian Party or Álvaro Noboa Pontón himself, have always dominated. This is not due to a reversal of ideological preferences or a substantial change in the prevailing view on the active role the state should play in the economy. The point is that on the coast, the deficit in infrastructure and state presence has historically been greater than in the Sierra, which is why, during the commodities boom, the growth of this type of investment by the Correa government earned it a loyal electorate. Meanwhile, in the Sierra and the southern Amazon, where the deficit was smaller, the material benefits received from the expansion of state services during the fat years of Correismo were not enough to compensate for the combination of authoritarianism and corruption associated with its governments.

It is precisely in the most impoverished Indigenous areas, with the highest density of community-oriented grassroots organizational networks, where patriarchy and the imposition of the “maximum leader” are most strongly repudiated. It is not by chance that the women’s vote, generally more adverse to authoritarianism, has moved away from Correismo since 2021; in the first round, Noboa earned 350,000 more votes from women than men, while González obtained 70,000  more votes from men than women.

A Truncated Term

Noboa's next government will last only a year and a half, until May 2025, a consequence of Lasso's invocation of the "muerte cruzada," a never-before-used constitutional mechanism that allowed him to dissolve Congress and call early elections in order to evade an impeachment procedure. It is not difficult to foresee that this will be a government in active electoral campaign from day one. No one can make or even consider making major structural reforms in a year and a half. It will hardly be a government of rapid privatizations or labor reforms, always widely unpopular. What can be reasonably expected is the objective of building its own electoral base and a more stable political majority, in order to impose a longer-term project from 2025 onwards.

The president-elect has already announced plans for a popular consultation in the first 100 days of his administration on security issues. Surely his political strategists will measure the negative effects of such a promise, which is totally unnecessary and constitutes a major distraction from the tasks of governance. But Noboa does not have a government team, specialists in public management, nor politicians skilled in handling the conflicts inherent to the task of governing. This is not an insurmountable obstacle but time is short and there is no margin to start learning. A few names of businessmen who could occupy the first ministries have been mentioned; but the key ministries of economy, government, security, and energy, where strategic investments have been promised, are missing.

What is certain is that he cannot under any pretext obsess about the fiscal deficit and austerity policies in a country that lives in  anguish over the lack of employment, massive northward migration, and an unprecedented  crisis of criminality.

Correa's Citizen Revolution Movement will bet on waiting out this new pro-business government that won not by its own merits but by the disaffection that the electorate still has with its former leader. It will not consider any self-criticism or a change in its strategy, but let time and the failure of its adversaries make the party more palatable.

Meanwhile, the political leaders of the business world will seek to approach the young president, who comes from their circles and with whom they maintain obvious affinities, but who belongs to a group that has not been well-esteemed by its peers ever since his father, Álvaro, took over the family business from its founder, Noboa’s grandfather, Luis Noboa Naranjo. Business leaders hold hopes for a more efficient Lasso, but for the moment that is nothing more than an uncertain aspiration.

The Indigenous movement, for its part, lost a golden opportunity in 2023, weakened by its internal fractures and by a candidate that did not know how to adapt to a political scenario marked by the need for energetic responses to social disintegration, fear, and disorder. The reconstruction of an alternative centered on grassroots and civil society organizations now has an arduous uphill journey ahead.

But this is how it has always been; from adversity we persist.

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

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