Ecuador’s Election Was a Massive Repudiation of Neoliberalism

The first round of Ecuador's presidential election handed first place to left-wing candidate Andrés Arauz. It was a total repudiation of Lenín Moreno's neoliberal agenda. But more work is needed to cement a coalition that can win power and an anti-austerity program.

Presidential candidate Andrés Arauz celebrates with supporters in Quito, Ecuador as he claims victory following general elections. (Franklin Jacome / Getty Images)

The first round of the Ecuadorian presidential election held on February 7 was engulfed in chaos and controversies. But it also saw the overhaul of the political map — and an end to the short-lived dominance of the country’s main neoliberal actors.

The top-placed candidate was left-winger Andrés Arauz, close to former president Rafael Correa and his “Citizens’ Revolution”: he won nearly 33 percent support and his Union for Hope (UNES) coalition became the largest force in the National Assembly. Meanwhile the alliance of the two traditional conservative parties Creating Opportunities party (CREO) and the Social Christian Party (PSC) headed by the country’s most notorious corporate banker, Guillermo Lasso, obtained less than 20 percent — a loss of more than half of its strength since 2017. Yet more surprising was the emergence of two newcomers — Carlos “Yaku” Pérez of the indigenist Pachakutik party (19.5 percent) and Xavier Hervas of the liberal Democratic Left (16 percent).

In the parallel election for the National Assembly, Arauz’s UNES obtained forty-nine seats (out of a total of a hundred thirty-seven), while the CREO-PSC coalition won thirty seats, Pachakutik twenty-seven, and Democratic Left eighteen. Outgoing neoliberal president Lenín Moreno’s Country Alliance party, rocked by massive protests against IMF-backed reforms in fall 2019, scored less than 1.5 percent and was eliminated from parliament.

At first glance, the result is something of a disappointment for the Citizens’ Revolution, a movement that dominated Ecuador’s politics during Correa’s presidency from 2007 to 2017 and became the main opposition to Lenín Moreno‘s government. UNES leaders had expected to claim victory in the first round (which would have required at least 40 percent support, plus a 10 percent lead over the second-placed candidate) and an outright majority in the National Assembly.

The Citizens’ Revolution did indeed win the plurality of the nation’s cantons (103 out of 221), along with eight regions and the strategically important coastal provinces of Guayas, Manabí, Esmeraldas, and El Oro. Andrés Arauz, his running mate Carlos Rabascall, and other UNES candidates also dominated the overseas vote. However, most of the country’s mountainous region (particularly Cotopaxi, Bolívar, and Chimborazo) and the Amazonia were won by Pérez, while Lasso only won the provinces of Galápagos and Pichincha. Thus, the fate of the Ecuadorian presidency will be decided in the second round, due to be held on April 11.

But the post-election data also show a different reality — a defeat for traditional conservative parties and the emergence of new centrist and liberal forces that seek to inherit the anti-Correa mantle. Indeed, even this result represents the return of the Citizens’ Revolution movement as the country’s main political force, despite the most intense campaign of legal persecution and repression since the authoritarian governments of the 1980s.

One for All… and All Against One

Ever since Lenín Moreno’s broke with Correa’s reformist legacy and instead embraced the country’s economic and political elites, the Citizens’ Revolution has faced an unending campaign of “Lawfare” in an attempt to eliminate it from the political map and thwart its return to the Cardondelet presidential palace.

Jorge Glas, Correa’s former vice president and widely recognized architect of Ecuador’s economic framework during the period from 2013 to 2017, continues to be imprisoned in Quito’s Latacunga maximum security prison, despite his deteriorating health condition and COVID-19 infection. More than thirty dubious legal cases, ranging from bribery and kidnapping, have been launched against Correa since 2018 in an attempt to bury his legacy of radical economic and social change.

Other prominent leaders such as the former minister of foreign affairs Ricardo Patiño, former National Assembly head Gabriela Rivadeneira, and the prominent indigenous leader Carlos Viteri were forced into exile in Mexico. The current prefect of Pichincha, Paola Pabón, the newly elected member of the Andean Parliament, Virgilio Hernández, and social-movement leader Christian Gonzalez were all imprisoned following the October 2019 uprising against Moreno’s government and its attempts to impose IMF “reforms.” Numerous other activists and figures have also suffered defamation, persecution, exile, or imprisonment.

The process of registering the Arauz-Rabascall presidential ticket was also repeatedly and deliberately stalled by the country’s electoral authorities before the start of the campaign. The original Arauz-Correa ticket was rejected on the grounds that Correa was not currently residing in Ecuador (even though the Ecuadorian electoral law permits candidates to register from overseas), while Rabascall’s nomination as vice presidential candidate was also resisted by the National Electoral Council (CNE) on the grounds that he was not elected through a popular assembly. Further attempts at blocking their candidacies delayed their final registration until December 8 (only three weeks before the campaign began), and even then the legal challenges continued.

Another unsuccessful attempt to disqualify Arauz was made on January 31 by Luis Verdesoto, a CNE official closely affiliated with Guillermo Lasso, on the spurious grounds that Arauz’s campaign was conducting COVID-19 tests in its campaign centers — alleging that it was effectively “buying” votes by offering an essential service in its campaign centers. This was dismissed after no complaints were made against most other candidates similarly conducting COVID-19 tests.

The media and political campaign against Arauz was dominated by three key aspects — his casting as a “dummy” of Correa, the use of false accounts across Facebook and Twitter to spread fake videos and information about Arauz’s economic proposals (and to boost the campaigns of Lasso and Pérez), and meddling by foreign political and media actors.

The catchphrase describing Arauz as a “dummy” of Correa was widely used by right-wing forces to portray him as both unintelligent and dependent on the former president. Ironically, this also helped associate Arauz’s candidacy with Correa, who maintains broad popularity across the working class and sections of the middle class that rose during his presidency.

A more serious threat to Arauz’s campaign came in the form of an “investigation” conducted by the Colombian magazine Semana. It alleged that the far-left guerrilla movement ELN has been financing his campaign via the Progressive International, since the latter’s first conference in September 2020. The absurdity of the claim can be compared to a similar campaign of defamation against Rafael Correa in 2010–11, when it was alleged that his 2009 election campaign received funding from the FARC in Colombia. Both Arauz and David Adler, the Progressive International director, dismissed the allegations as a desperate attempt at defamation.

The investigation by Semana soon evolved into a full-on intervention by the Colombian judicial system with the attorney general Francisco Barbosa making an official visit to Quito in order to deliver the alleged evidence linking the ELN with the campaign of Andrés Arauz. The intervention by Barbosa (known for his close friendship with Colombian president Iván Duque) has been widely condemned as an attempt to intervene into the Ecuadorian electoral process and attempt to disqualify Arauz from participating in the second round.

Former Colombian president Ernesto Samper insisted that the allegations are “part of a dirty game that is being orchestrated from Colombia by the radical sectors of the right wing of the two countries to interfere in the second round of the Ecuadorian presidential elections.”

Another false campaign video alleged that Arauz’s team was offering $250 to any voter that registered with their campaign. This story was picked up and republished by Argentina’s Clarín newspaper, notorious for its strong opposition to Peronism and the Left in general.

The distribution of the video also helped to reveal a vast network of bots and trolls operating throughout social media, mostly affiliated with the campaigns of Guillermo Lasso and Yaku Pérez. A thorough study conducted by the Spanish digital campaign guru, Julián Macias, also demonstrated the strong connections between Lasso and the various right-wing, libertarian, and far-right think tanks and institutes around the world, the Atlas Network being the most notorious.

However, even with this web of connections, Lasso almost failed to make the second round, as an unexpected challenger emerged.

The Dilemmas of CONAIE and Pachakutik

The emergence of Yaku Pérez as a possible second-round challenger to Andrés Arauz was one of the big surprises of election night. Most liberal press dubbed him as the “new face of Ecuador’s left” and an “ecosocialist” alternative to what they consider the “authoritarian” left of Correa and Arauz.

The former leader of the ECUARUNARI indigenous organization and the prefect of Azuay province, Pérez first came to prominence during the anti-Correa protests of 2015 which opposed a range of new taxes on the superrich and the possibility of Correa’s reelection in 2017. Pérez, along with his French-Brazilian wife, the academic Manuela Picq, have traditionally been staunch opponents of the Citizens’ Revolution, going as far as supporting Lasso’s candidacy in the 2017 presidential race.

Presidential candidate Yaku Pérez. (Yaku Pérez Guartambel / Facebook)

Since then, Pérez has often taken stances in support of the various right-wing forces in Ecuador and throughout Latin America. He openly backed the parliamentary coup against Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, the lawfare campaign against Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, as well as supporting the violent US-backed coup against Evo Morales in November 2019.

A closer look at Peréz’s background as an indigenous leader paints an even more sinister picture. Reports have documented his ties to the various NGOs that have for years received the financial and political backing of US-affiliated agencies such as USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. He also held various meetings and negotiations with the US embassy in 2019 prior to the October uprising. Like the anti-Morales and pro-coup Bolivian NGO “Standing Rivers” and its Atlas Network–affiliated leader Jhanisse Vaca Daza, Pérez and Picq have for years attempted to portray Correa as an anti-indigenous, anti-environment leader that pursues an “extractivist” model of development.

As with comparable criticisms of Evo Morales, these accusations fall rather flat when we consider the radical change implemented through the 2008 Montecristi constitution, which recognized Ecuador’s plurinational identity, the rights of nature, and the importance of Sumak Kawsay (Good Living) indigenous principles. More importantly, the government of Correa initiated a process of green energy transition under the supervision of vice president Jorge Glas, with the massive Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric energy project in the province of Napo. This also laid the groundwork for a transition away from a petroleum export–dominated economy through a number of initiatives like new infrastructure projects, and massive increases in spending in the public education and health care sectors.

At the same time, the Confederation of the Indigenous Organizations of Ecuador (CONAIE) has been far from unanimous in its support of Pérez. Despite opposing Correa during most of his time in office (and even backing the 2010 attempted coup against him), various leaders and organizations affiliated with it have recognized the danger of a Lasso presidency.

The most prominent of these has been Leonidas Iza, president of the Cotopaxi indigenous movement, and one of the key organizers of the October 2019 uprisings against Moreno. In an interview with prominent journalist Jimmy Jairala, he stated that “right-wing elements from Lasso’s organization were inside Pérez’s inner circle” seeking his support for Lasso in the second round. Furthermore, on February 12 he, along with other left-wing elements of Pachakutik, stated their opposition to any kind of an agreement with Lasso or his party.

It is also worth noting that while CONAIE endorsed the choice of Pérez as the presidential candidate, it did not explicitly organize a public campaign. Many key leaders, such as Iza and Jaime Vargas, refrained from making statements in support of Pérez. This is likely the result of a number of meetings and negotiations held between Vargas, Iza, and Andrés Arauz, the first of which was organized in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and brokered by former Bolivian president Morales. Arauz had also met with Vargas and other indigenous leaders throughout his campaign in the Amazonia region and insisted that he was looking forward to a “positive relationship” with CONAIE and other organizations in his future government.

In short, the choice of Yaku Pérez to represent the interests of the Pachakutik and the indigenous nations of Ecuador echoes the lackluster 2017 choice of Lenín Moreno to represent the interests of the Citizens’ Revolution and Ecuador’s working class — a man who ultimately turned out to be anything but their champion.

Undoubtedly, the CONAIE indigenous movement will play a significant role in the second round of the Ecuadorian election. Its decision about who to support will have to reflect the country’s new political realities — choosing between the resurgent left-wing movement under the leadership of Andrés Arauz or the politics of the neoliberal past with Guillermo Lasso.

The Runoff

During the week of waiting for the final results, Pérez lead an intense and at times surreal campaign proclaiming his “second-place victory,” and demanding a total recount of the votes. Absurdly, he claimed that the CNE was controlled by Correa (despite this body’s efforts to exclude him) and even that the former president conspired together with Lasso to prevent him from reaching the runoff.

The Organization of American States (OAS)–brokered meeting between Lasso and Pérez on February 12 resulted in an agreement to conduct a total recount of all votes in the province of Guayas, where Arauz and Lasso dominated the race and Pérez came a distant fourth. At the same time, various political leaders opposed to Correa and Arauz have called for the creation of an “anti-Correa front” for the second round on April 11.

Presidential candidate Xavier Hervas. (Xavier Hervas / Facebook)

Furthermore, Hervas of the Democratic Left also called for a unity of political forces against the “extremist, corrupt left of Correa,” despite himself benefiting financially during Correa’s time in government — indeed often accompanying him on foreign visits in 2013 and 2014, while promoting his agroexport business.

On the surface, this ragbag of conservatives, liberals, anti-Correa indigenist movements, and some far-left organizations (such as the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Ecuador, backing Pérez) has the upper hand in terms of the total electoral support its candidates received on February 7.

However, their bases of support are not so solid, and the voters are highly likely to shift their preferences should the eventual contest set Arauz against Lasso. After all, more than 70 percent of the electorate voted for a candidate who either had strong left-wing political program (i.e. Arauz) or presented himself as being progressive or left-wing in one form or another (i.e. Hervas and Pérez), thus rejecting Lasso’s staunchly conservative and free-market agenda.

A potential endorsement of Lasso in the second round as the “anti-Correa” candidate by Hervas and Pérez would present an enormous problem for their respective organizations and electoral bases. This decision could divide the CONAIE between those who wish to continue their crusade against Correa at any cost, and those who wish to avoid a neoliberal presidency. Within Democratic Left, Hervas is still a relatively new figure, and the party itself has a history of splits and internal infighting over their orientation toward Correa, his government, and allies.

In the first round, the large majority of voters in Ecuador rejected neoliberalism and the figures that have traditionally represented it. The true challenge for Andrés Arauz, Rafael Correa, and the Citizens’ Revolution now lies in showing that they represent this vast majority, winning the election on the back of a program that can dig up the roots of neoliberalism once and for all.