Election preview: Ecuador

The second election for this weekend* will be held today (that is, early Monday morning Australian time), in Ecuador.

It’s not expected to be much of a contest. Incumbent president Rafael Correa is headed for a clear victory – most probably with a majority in the first round, as he had in 2009. In the event that a second round is required it will be held on 7 April. If anyone gets close it will probably be centre-right candidate Guillermo Lasso.

It is also possible that the president’s party will win a majority in its own right in the legislature. (Like most of the Americas, Ecuador has a fully presidential system, with a complete separation of powers between executive and legislature.) Last time it fell just short, with 59 seats out of 124.

Correa has been in power since 2006, and as with many long-serving leaders there are signs that power may be going to his head. The opposition complains of restrictions on press freedom and a compliant judiciary. But great strides have been made under Correa’s leadership in curbing poverty and improving infrastructure, and there seems little doubt that he remains genuinely popular among many Ecuadorians.

Prior to Correa’s tenure, Ecuador had been something of a basket case. It went through seven presidents (two of them acting) in ten years and faced huge financial problems. Correa solved the crisis by promising to repudiate the country’s debt, which depressed the value of Ecuador’s bonds so much that he was able to buy them back at a large discount – a neat trick, but one that really only works once.

Since then Ecuador has apparently relied on booming oil revenues to fund its ambitious spending programs, but there must be serious questions about their sustainability.

Correa’s election was part of what was perceived as a general swing to the left in Latin America. While some left-wing presidents governed from the centre once in power (Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Lula da Silva in Brazil), Correa is one of the more radical left group that also includes Evo Morales in Bolivia, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

Among that group, however, Correa seems rather less the full-blooded revolutionary socialist. While he adopts some of Chávez’s rhetoric, and has joined his Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, he has done less to burn his bridges with the democratic world. Last December, for example, when the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the Assad regime’s repression in Syria, Venezuela and its other allies were among the few dissenters (with the likes of China, Iran and Russia), but Ecuador only abstained.

Internationally, Correa’s most famous radical gesture has been the grant of political asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who remains stranded in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. No doubt he will be one of those hoping that the polls are right and that Ecuador remains in the radical camp.

* Read about the first, in Cyprus, here.

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