By Soledad Stoessel
If Netflix had known how Ecuador’s April 2 presidential election would turn out, it might have waited to promote the fourth season of its award-winning political drama House of Cards. The post-run-off scenes in this South American nation were worthy of any political thriller.
The second round of voting handed victory to Lenin Moreno, candidate of the ruling left-wing Alianza País and the heir-apparent of President Rafael Correa (whom he served as vice president from 2007 to 2013). Moreno won narrowly with 51.15% of vote while his opponent, conservative former banker Guillermo Lasso of the CREO-SUMA alliance, had 48.85%.
Initial suspense over the neck-in-neck race gave way to political hysteria by evening as the defeated candidate and his supporters (largely Ecuadorian elites), alleged fraud and took to the streets – and the airwaves – in violent protest.
A brief chronicle of the fraud that wasn’t
At 5:01 pm on election day, television channels announced exit poll results with opposing outcomes, each calling the race for “their” man. The privately owned Ecuavisa concluded a Lasso victory on results (later discredited) from one polling agency. Meanwhile Ecuador TV, a public channel, handed Moreno the win.
By 5:15 pm, with official results still unreleased, journalists on non-state media were congratulating the not-president-to-be: Ecuador’s media battle in all its splendor.
Four long hours later, at 9 pm, Ecuador’s national election board confirmed Moreno’s victory in a live press conference.
To exactly no one’s surprise, Lasso fervently denied the election results at 10 pm, alleging fraud (without providing – then or ever – any evidence). Even Jaime Nebot, a Lasso ally, exhorted the CREO camp to offer proof for its accusations.
This peculiar thriller might have been funny if the democratic future of a country weren’t at stake.
The Hungarian historian István Bibó has spoken of political hysteria to explain what happens when communities fail to confront a powerful problem that threatens, if not their very existence, then at least their identity. They tend toward the stratagem of creating a fictional problem as a substitute for the real crisis they lack the tools or intellect to resolve. This tactic, Bibó says, allows people to feel a sensation of relief and grandeur.
Presumably the defeated Lasso and his supporters felt neither when they resuscitated the hypothesis of election fraud, which had also been floated after the tight first round of voting in February.
Several international transparency monitors recognized the validity of the election and many Latin American presidents, as well as the Organization of American States (OAS), European governments and the U.S. Department of State congratulated President-elect Moreno.
This did not stop the Lassistas, who, finding themselves impotent against a government they had declared “populist institution-inundaters”, laid siege on Ecuador’s institutions and demanded a recount “from the streets”.
Political conflict and an institutional deluge
Starting on April 3 and continuing, even as these lines were being written, Lasso and his allies have disrupted life in Ecuador’s major cities. In Quito, Cuenca, Guayaquil and Loja, people are burning tires and staging aggressive public actions to express their discontent with Moreno’s win and support for the fraud allegations.
One image stands out: groups of Ecuador’s elite classes praying in the middle of a Quito avenue, begging God to alter the election results.
Alianza País supported the recount request in deference to the mass citizen outcry. That April 8 and 9 effort, with participation of the OAS and the South American bloc UNASUR, not only confirmed the original outcome but actually allotted Moreno even more votes. Thus far the Lassista opposition has ignored these results.
Then, a more comprehensive vote recount was held yesterday, with more than a million voted recounted. Most of those vote, incidentally, were chosen for recount because the Lasso campaign claimed they came from voting precincts where irregularities occurred.
The result after a full day of counting: No major election problems were discovered and Moreno actually increased his lead of Moreno. Lasso, however, continues to yell fraud and defy common sense.
There are real reasons for some measure of this political hysteria.
Many of those who reject Ecuador’s election results have convinced themselves – thanks, in part, to a favorable social media micro-climate – that a ruling-party candidate could never win this election. After a decade of Alianza Pais leadership, Ecuador today is experiencing a powerful economic slowdown, and many feel that Correa-style populism has run its course.
Amid claims of high-level corruption within the Correa administration, others have little faith in government, so they find it difficult to trust Ecuador’s official electoral board.
And though Lasso did indeed lose some steam in the final weeks of his second-round campaign, external events also appeared to be hurting Moreno’s chances. These were largely related to the ongoing crisis in neighboring Venezuela, which reinforced some people’s concern that continued Alianza Pais rule would turn Ecuador into its polarized, conflict-ridden neighbor.
Things started to go south in mid-March when Ecuadorian authorities denied entry to Lilian Tintori, the wife of a prominent Venezuelan opposition politician and a Lasso supporter, because Ecuadorian law prohibits visas for the purpose of prostheltism. An incident in which Alianza Pais zealots roughed up Lasso at a soccer match reinforced the narrative that a Moreno win would lead to Venezuela-style civil unrest.
Tough act to follow
Beyond electoral drama, the president-elect will confront a variety of real national challenges when he takes power on May 24. The first order of business for Moreno will be reinforcing his legitimacy, given that nearly half of Ecuadorians cast their vote for change.
Lasso’s widespread support derived less from his political platform or personal charisma (and much less from his role in Ecuador’s economic crisis of 1999) than from a certain exhaustion with President Rafael Correa’s leadership. To restore confidence in government, Moreno is likely to seek to include the different social and political forces of the country in his government.
He must also show that he has autonomy from Correa and is committed to strengthening Ecuadorian state institutions (other than the presidency). His comportment during the post-run-off contentiousness has not necessarily demonstrated this.
Still, the candidate’s promised “de-Correafication” process must be advanced cautiously, as many Ecuadorians still revere the current president and his pro-poor policies.
Moreno also faces a stagnant economy, which Ecuadorians see as the country’s biggest problem. He must restart it, and do so without resorting to austerity and free-market ideas, as the conservative new presidents of Argentina and Brazil have done.
The fact that Correa’s chosen successor won in Ecuador shows that a majority of citizens agree on at least one thing: there’s no tolerance now for the Latin American neoliberal dogma in which the masses must suffer fiscal and social “adjustments” so that economy may later see some modest gains, after a decade of irrefutable expansion of rights.
Soledad Stoessel is a postdoctoral researcher in Latin American Political Processes at the National University of La Plata. This article was originally published in The Conversation then reposted on The Wire.