Commenting last week on Ecuador’s presidential campaign, one Quito journalist called it “colorless, odorless, and empty.”
The reference was aimed mostly at front-runner and presumed heir apparent to President Rafael Correa, Lenin Moreno, and suggested that voters know little more about the candidate than they did when he left the vice presidency four years ago.
It could be argued, in fact, that they know even less.
Within months of leaving office, Moreno publicly criticized his former boss’s governance style, referring to it as confrontational, mean-spirited, and vindictive. He cited Correa’s fight against the news media and non-profit organizations that opposed his policies. He objected to the president’s habit of “school-yard name-calling” to attack political opponents.
Moreno, who remains a strong supporter of Correa’s social and infrastructure programs and policies, said the president’s temperament harkens back to an era of loud-mouthed Latin American strong men, not forward to a spirit of consensus building Moreno said is necessary to build a modern Ecuador.
Moreno also claimed that Correa’s anti-business attitude discourages investment and keeps Ecuador’s economy dependent on revenue from non-renewable resources, especially oil.
Some Correa supporters suggested that Moreno be censured or even kicked out of Alianza Pais for disrespecting the president. Correa, who rarely lets a criticism go unanswered, did in Moreno’s case and publicly supported his former VP’s right to speak his mind. Correa is smart and knew that he might need Moreno’s help one day.
Correa’s prescience paid off when Moreno agreed to be the Alianza Pais presidential candidate. It has not, however, paid off for voters who are left wondering what Lenin Moreno really stands for a month ahead of the election. Most important, voters want to know what changes Moreno will make to Correa’s government; with the president’s popularity rating dipping into the high-30s, its lowest point since he was elected, most voters say change is necessary.
By being the Alianza standard-bearer, Moreno has, in effect, agreed to wear a muzzle, keeping his personal feelings about Correa to himself and, most important, not revealing his plans for a new government. The colorless, empty campaign is certainly by design, based on a belief that Moreno can win against a splintered, ineffective opposition by staying above the fray, counting on his high “likeability’ numbers to carry him to Carondelet Palace.
But there are dangers to the strategy and the numbers tell the tale. Correa’s falling approval rating and the Petroecuador and Odebrecht scandals have taken a toll on Moreno’s lead in the polls. Although he still holds a 13% lead, based on a poll average, over his nearest rival, conservative Guayaquil banker and Guillermo Lasso, it is down from 17% in October.
So here’s the big question. If the race continues to tighten, will the real Lenin Moreno remove the Correa muzzle and step out of the shadows? His victory may depend on it.