In an atmosphere of violence and economic distress, Ecuadorians head to the polls to pick a president

Oct 14, 2023 | 0 comments

By Alexandra Valencia

Ecuadorians go to the polls on Sunday to choose between a young centrist promoting economic development to provide opportunity for the country’s young people and another pledging a return to leftist social programs designed by a former president two decades ago.

Luisa Gonzalez with former president Rafael Correa

Banana industry heir Daniel Noboa, 35, has led polling since the August 20 election primary, though at least two surveys put voting intention for him and leftist Luisa Gonzalez, a protégé of former President Rafael Correa, within the margin of error. According to several pollsters, Gonzalez’s support was on the rise in the most recent surveys.

The campaign has been marked by violence, most notably with the assassination of anti-corruption and anti-crime candidate Fernando Villavicencio. Seven suspects in that case were subsequently killed, apparently to keep them from talking. Two other politicians in the country’s violent coastal region were gunned down.

Gonzalez, 45, who won 34% of the vote in a first round, says she will bring back the popular social spending which characterized Correa’s decade in power, including free medicines, increased worker protections and direct aid to those in need. She also pledged to use $2.5 billion from international reserves to shore up the economy.

Daniel Noboa with his running mate.

Noboa, a former National Assembly member, was a surprise entrance to the run-off. He is the son of multimillionaire banana business magnate Alvaro Noboa, who himself ran unsuccessfully for president numerous times. He formed his own party and vowed to attract foreign investment and create jobs, particularly for young people.

“In contrast to other elections which were dominated by demagogic promises, in this election undecided voters — young people — are trying to understand which of the two (candidates) will be able to solve their personal concerns,” said Francis Romero of firm Click Research.

About a quarter of the 13 million Ecuadoreans obliged to vote are between the ages of 18 and 29. A high number of voters remain undecided, Romero said, although most of these lean toward Noboa

Both candidates have tried to woo young people with promises of jobs, free education and economic benefits, while visiting universities during the campaign’s final days.

“What is expected of either candidate is that they improve the country…that they think of the youth, we want jobs with dignity” said student David Vilana, 21, in a working-class neighborhood in Quito’s south, declining to say who he would back.

Analysts are skeptical of the promises made by both candidates. “Because of the emergency nature of the election, the winner will be in office for only 17 months so it is doubtful they will be able to accomplish very much even if they have the cooperation of the legislature — which is another problem in itself,” says Quito history professor Lolo Echeverria. He adds that much of the term will be consumed preparing for the next election.

Like most other observers, Echeverria says the candidates have been far too vague about their proposals. “Gonzalez wants to return to the policies and programs of the Correa government but ignores the fact that they were enacted during a period of record-high oil prices and today, that windfall is long gone. On the other hand, Noboa often seems clueless when it comes to his promise to restructure the bureaucracy.”

He adds: “Neither candidate answers the question of how they will fund their proposals since the country cannot pay its current bills.”

The outgoing government of President Guillermo Lasso, who called the early election to avoid impeachment, has blamed rising violence on the streets and in prisons on drug gangs, but has struggled to combat them. Meanwhile the economy – set to grow just 0.8% in 2024 according to central bank estimates – is a top concern for voters.

Ecuador is the world’s top exporter of bananas, and the fruit has been among exports hit by drug trafficking as smugglers secrete narcotics, mostly cocaine, in shipping containers. According to the European Drug Control Authority, almost 80% of illegal drugs leaving Ecuadorian ports are destined for Europe.

Gonzalez has pledged to build a new prison outside Guayaquil and take back the country from criminals, while Noboa has said the most dangerous convicts should be held on prison boats and that he will use technology to fight crime. Both, however, favor expensive programs to improve conditions inside prisons and to provide rehabilitation programs.

In recent days Gonzalez has called for unity, saying the country needs to “leave behind dirty campaigning, leave behind attacks, leave behind hate.” On Wednesday, Noboa said the same, during a rally in Cuenca.

Voters hope for change. “We have the chance to elect a different party, we have been on the same path for a long time,” said Quito retiree Jose Rosero, 61, declining to say who he will support. “We want something new and I hope we don’t make a mistake.”

The winner will govern from December this year until May 2025.

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