February election will mean big changes for Ecuador; What will it mean for expats?

Jan 2, 2017 | 27 comments

To understand what’s at stake in next month’s presidential election, it’s important to first consider Rafael Correa’s enormous impact on Ecuador. The election will be, in large part, a referendum on his presidency.

It’s also important to understand that Correa’s former vice president and heir apparent, Lenin Moreno, could steer the country on a dramatically different course.

Despite recent headwinds to his candidacy, Moreno remains the man to beat in the seven-man, one-woman presidential field.

The election brings to an end Correa’s 10-year presidency, a tenure remarkable not just for the dramatic changes it has made to the country, but for the fact that it followed a decade in which five mostly ineffective presidents were unable to finish a single four-year term. Two of those presidents were literally run out of town with a mob in hot pursuit.

Lenin Moreno, President Rafael Correa, and Jorge Glas.

Beyond its longevity, the Correa presidency is notable as a period of unparalleled growth and development. Thanks to high oil prices and a leftist vision of modernization, Ecuador embarked on a program of massive infrastructure projects, building and upgrading highways, bridges, ports, hospitals, schools, and airports, and hydroelectric projects, and providing billions for large public transportation projects in Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca.

In the span of less than six years, Ecuador went from middle-of-the-pack among Latin American countries in infrastructure quality to rank among the top three.

During the same period, the country invested heavily in social welfare projects, impressively reducing the rates of poverty and violent crime, doubling per-student funding for public education, and almost tripling spending on public health care.

There are, however, glaring shortcomings in Correa’s long reign. His efforts to concentrate power and to extend government regulation over a broadening range of Ecuadorian life, mostly coming during his current term in office, have created a backlash not just from the opposition, both of the left and right, but from his grassroots supporters. His suspicion of “civil society” and efforts to control it by banning non-profit organizations and threatening private individuals and the media have led to international as well as local condemnation.

At the heart of Correa’s vision for Ecuador, it seems clear, is his belief that he alone is correct and that those who oppose him are infidels and traitors. He believes absolutely in absolute power so long as he’s in charge.

This is the inescapable backdrop of the presidential election, and, to a certain extent, the mantle that Lenin Moreno must carry.

Duality serves Moreno well

Moreno’s advantage in the election is that, as Correa’s former vice president,  he can share credit for some of the administration’s accomplishments. On the other hand, he can, quite literally, play the role of the outsider. Following his term as vice president, Moreno lived out of the country for six years, serving as the United Nations Special Advocate for the Disabled. To his supporters, most of whom object to Correa’s management style, Moreno is the agent for change. When Moreno returned home from Geneva to accept the País nomination, his supporters lining the highway outside the Quito airport held signs that said, “More of the same, but with change.”

Moreno also has the considerable advantage, predating the Correa presidency, of being likeable. Correa has always been the stinker.

Although Moreno has clear differences with Correa on political issues such as freedom of the press, civil society, taxes and business regulation, some of which he has publicly voiced, his biggest difference is in temperament. While the arrogant, thin-skinned Correa thinks nothing of calling his adversaries terrorists, punks, fatsos, and homosexuals, Moreno has been known to send political opponents birthday and get-well cards.

According to political insiders, Correa would have preferred his current vice president, Jorge Glas, to be País’s presidential candidate instead of its vice presidential candidate. He was forced to settle on Moreno for the simple fact that he realized Glas couldn’t win.

The campaign

Of the eight presidential candidates certified by Ecuador’s election council, four can be considered legitimate contenders with Moreno leading the pack at this point.

Conservative Lasso and socialist Tiko Tiko exchange ideas.

The contenders are Guayaquil banker Guillermo Lasso, Guayaquil attorney and National Assembly member Cynthia Viteri, and former Quito Mayor Paco Moncayo. Politically, Lasso and Viteri are considered center-right, while Moncayo is center-left, but agrees with Lasso and Viteri on a number of tax, civil liberties, and regulatory issues.

An average of the most recent polls show Moreno’s support at 35%, Lasso’s at 20%, Viteri’s at 13%, and Moncayo’s at 9%.

Running second and third to Moreno, Lasso and Viteri appear to constitute the biggest challenge. If the election requires a run-off, which it would if Moreno fails to win a majority, or 40% with a 10% advantage over his nearest rival, it seems logical that the loser between Lasso and Viteri would support the other to form a solid conservative front.

This, however, is Ecuador and such logic does not necessarily apply. Lasso and Viteri — who many consider a proxy for Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot — hate each other and the loser could just as easily throw his or her support to Moreno in a run-off.

Dangers to Moreno’s campaign

The immediate challenge for Moreno is to weather the unfolding Petroecuador and Odebrecht bribery scandals dogging the Correa administration. They have already cost him several points of support. Although it appears that Moreno’s hands are clean, this may not be the case with running mate Glas.

Despite his relative independence from Correa, Moreno chose to be the standard-bearer of Alianza País, the party Correa created, and must bear some of the responsibility for its actions.

What does it all mean for expats?

Foreign residents are not an issue in the campaign and will probably not become one in the next six weeks. For years, beginning long before the Correa presidency, Ecuador has been extraordinarily welcoming to foreigners and this is unlikely to change.

For the most part, Ecuadorians and expats have similar interests, with the economy and political and civil stability at the top of the list. Given market forces that are out of their control, it appears unlikely that any of the candidates would have an immediate impact on the economy; the recession may have bottomed-out but the recovery will be slow no matter who wins the election.

Most of us would prefer a ratcheting back of the government-knows-best mentality and the condescending rhetoric that goes with it. Surely, the conflict surrounding the Chinese copper mine in San Carlos Panantza, east of Cuenca, could have been better managed.

Most of us would prefer a simplification of rules that govern businesses and private interactions with the government (in other words, cut the red tape!). Those of us with investments would prefer a clarification and, in some cases, a reduction of taxes.

Most expats, I believe, are best served with more of the same, but with change.

To read an earlier column by David Morrill about the Rafael Correa presidency, click here.

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