By Soledad Stoessel
It may be a bit much to invoke Gustav Meyrink’s Golem – the indomitable clay creation that destroyed everything in its path, alive but soulless – but the lurching, paradoxical maneuvering of Ecuador’s president, Lenin Moreno, does lend itself to literary comparisons.
Moreno served as vice president for six years under Rafael Correa, the popular and charismatic founder of political party Alianza Pais. In April 2017, he was narrowly elected as the successor to this left-wing administration, which oversaw the most stable political period of Ecuador’s democratic history.
During his presidential campaign against the conservative banker Guillermo Lasso, there were signs that Moreno was distancing himself from Correa. But at the time, these subtle political shifts seemed necessary to win an extremely tight race on a continent where the once-powerful Left is now ailing.
Now, just 120 days into his four-year term, Moreno is in the midst of executing a shocking breakaway from both the Alianza Pais platform and its supreme leader, Correa. This political turnaround is complicating Ecuador’s democratic transition and unraveling his party. At risk is nothing less than the will of the people.
The outstretched hand
Elected by just 2.3 points over Lasso, Moreno knew his administration would face serious challenges – among them, governing a highly polarized nation.
To tackle them, candidate Moreno seemed to think that demonstrating autonomy from Correa was a must-do. On the campaign trail, Moreno promised voters “national reconciliation,” “an outstretched hand” and “continuity with change.” Commentators took to calling this stratagem the “de-Correafication” of Ecuador.
Once in office, that process expanded. The president has now engaged every social and political force that Correa’s administration had considered “the opposition,” from the indigenous movement to the financial sector and media conglomerates.
Moreno has also held talks with opposition parties and the Ecuadorian Business Committee, a lobby that had urged the Correa government, which spent heavily on social welfare, to curb public expenditures.
Conversation led to action. Moreno acceded to financial sector demands that private banks be allowed to work with digital cash. In Ecuador, all electronic payments had previously been controlled by the central bank.
He also agreed to introduce reforms to the Communications Act that will protect freedom of expression, acquiescing to calls from media companies that for years did battle with Correa.
Finally, in a nod to austerity, the new president cut civil servant salaries, even though Ecuador ranks among the Latin American nations with the lowest public debt.
Such moves have worried the Alianza Pais’s base, who fear that the president is subverting Correa’s self-declared “citizen’s revolution.” If so, he’s doing it without any clear political or economic vision. Moreno’s policies are so incongruous that the right-wing Lasso recently offered to “lend” the president his economic plan.
Both ruling party and opposition
It didn’t take long for Moreno and his powerful predecessor to begin publicly clashing.
In June, Correa began to “editorialize” the Moreno administration in opinion pieces in El Telégrafo newspaper. On Twitter, he implicitly criticized the president as having either a “short memory” or acting “in bad faith.”
Moreno responded in kind. In a public meeting in June, he said, “Now we can breath freely, slowly we will all shed our sheep-like behavior.” He added that “the table is not set…he [Correa] could have been a bit more reasonable about leaving things in better condition.”
The former president quickly took to the internet to condemn the president’s intractability, saying that Moreno’s actions would undo El Correismo – Correa’s self-titled political movement – bow to corporate interests and kill Ecuador’s citizen revolution.
Adding to the chorus was Moreno’s own vice president, Jorge Glas, a Correa insider. In an Aug. 2 public letter, he protested President Moreno’s rapprochement with conservative forces.
All this has fueled the new president’s move to break away from El Correismo, even though just months ago Ecuadorian voters opted in favor of Correa’s legacy.
The resignation, in August, of several senior officials from El Correismo’s progressive wing showed that the government and the political movement were drifting farther apart. Today, under Moreno, Alianza Pais is in the strange position of being both the ruling power and the opposition.
Scandal or political convenience?
Adding fuel to the fire are explosive revelations that at least 18 Ecuadorian officials have been implicated in Brazil’s massive Odebrecht scandal.
The international bribery scheme has now taken down several senior members of Correa’s administration, including Vice President Glas. He stands accused of leading a network of civil servants who accepted US$33 million in corporate kickbacks.
Moreno could ask for no better excuse to isolate his Correa-friendly veep. On Aug. 3, one day after Glas’ critical open letter, the president stripped the vice president of all official powers. On Oct. 2, Glas was arrested, and he is now in preventive detention while under investigation.
Moreno did promise to “battle corruption,” and his anti-corruption front had seemed likely to please many sectors of society that are frustrated with public malfeasance.
However, his efforts now appear less targeted at weeding out corruption than at undermining Correa’s legacy. Glas is in jail, but the economic powers that be, such as the South American financial conglomerate Grupo Eljuri – a key Odebrecht player – have remained immune from prosecution.
Among Lasso’s electoral base, 81 percent now rate his administration positively. Moreno’s policies have also been welcomed by people in major urban hubs like Quito and Cuenca, where the administration’s approval rates have risen since June.
It was in this already tangled context that Moreno called for a plebiscite, theoretically a grassroots-inspired way to address national concerns. The president asked citizens and parties from across the political spectrum to submit questions that they wanted the government to help answer.
Of the almost 400 proposals received, the government will go to referendum next year with just seven questions. Among them will be to roll back capital gains taxes aimed at limiting land speculation and whether to undo Correa’s rollback of presidential term limits.
The selection process confirms the marginalization of Alianza Pais’s issues – he accepted just three of the party’s congressional leaders’ 33 submissions, alienating his own legislative bloc – and the resurgence of bankers, private media, traditional party leaders and financiers in Moreno’s coalition.
Rather than continue his predecessor’s legacy of reforms, Ecuador’s president seems keen to wield his popular mandate as a weapon to kill El Correismo once and for all.
Soledad Stoessel is a postdoctoral student researching “Latin American Political Processes” at the National University of La Plata, Argentina.