The circumstances appear ideal for a conservative to win Ecuador’s presidency in 2017.
The economy is in its second year of recession. Unemployment is up, as is the broader-reaching rate of under-employment. Support for President Rafael Correa has dropped below 40%, the lowest point of his 10-year administration. Complaints about government policies on taxation, mining, business regulation, and human rights are on the uptrend. And then there are the two bribery scandals that have put corruption front-and-center in the minds of voters.
Conditions seem ripe for change, particularly one that steers the country in a dramatically new direction. After a decade of leftist governance, doesn’t it make sense for voters to turn away from Correa’s would-be heir apparent Lenin Moreno, who would continue many of Correa’s policies, and opt for the conservative alternatives Guillermo Lasso or Cynthia Viteri?
It could well happen and, after the election — against all odds — of Donald Trump in the United States, it would seem foolish to bet the farm against it.
So why do Lasso and Viteri face such long odds in Ecuador? Why is their support stuck in the high teens, according to the latest polling average, versus Moreno’s, in the low 30s?
There are a couple reasons.
Just as “liberal” is considered a dirty word in much of the U.S., “conservative” is dirty in Ecuador. For many voters it is a reminder of the days of the old order and dictatorship, when the poor were exploited for the benefit of the wealthy, when a handful of families controlled all branches of the government. Correa aptly calls it the “time of the oligarchy.”
For Lasso, who would face Moreno in a run-off if the election were held today, there is another problem. He’s a banker, which may be an even dirtier word than conservative. Following the financial collapse of 1998 and 1999, bankers were widely blamed for the losses that wiped out the life savings of many Ecuadorians. If being a banker isn’t bad enough, Lasso also worked for the government in the period of the collapse, at one point holding the rather ponderous title of Superminister of the Economy. The government is the second most popular target of blame for the financial debacle that led to Ecuador’s adoption of the U.S. dollar.
Lasso won just under 23% of the vote against Correa in the 2013 presidential election, a level of support that, given his past, he may have trouble improving on.
Although Viteri strikes a more attractive pose for most voters, figuratively and literally, she is far less consistent in her positions than Lasso. Over two decades of political service, she has appeared in a variety of multi-colored guises. In the current campaign, she has adopted a populist approach, supporting the government’s minimum wage increases, and promising even more benefits to the poor.
Both Lasso and Viteri promise to reduce taxes, import tariffs, and business regulation, and to remove restrictions on the press and non-profit organizations — positions that many voters would support — but details of how this would be accomplished are vague or non-existent. At least with Moreno, voters have a 10-year record which includes impressive accomplishments as well as recent failures, to consider. They also have strong, although lately unspoken, indications that Moreno plans changes of his own to the government.
Most compelling for many voters in rejecting what leftists call the “conservative restoration” is the memory of Ecuador before Correa. It was a country of failing infrastructure, nationwide protests that shut down highways for days at a time, prolonged power outages, high crime, pay-for-play politics, and education and health care systems that provided neither.
As I said earlier, it would be a fool to make a hard prediction on the outcome of the election. On the other hand, history cannot be ignored.