A boilover in Ecuador

Apologies for the relative lack of blogging in the last week; I was on a short holiday. In the meantime, there’s been a lot happening in the world, so we’ll try to cover some of it this week. First up, Ecuador.

Presidential and congressional elections were held in Ecuador on Sunday. In the previous election, four years earlier, Lenín Moreno won the presidency narrowly in the second round, with 51.2% of the vote, beating centre-right candidate Guillermo Lasso by about 230,000 votes. Moreno was the chosen successor to leftist president Rafael Correa, but as I noted at the time he was “less of a radical leftist.”

In fact, quite a bit less, as became clear after he took office: Moreno reversed many of Correa’s policies, liberalising the economy and reorienting Ecuador’s foreign policy towards the west. This alienated both Correa himself (who went into exile in Belgium) and most of his voters, and in late 2019 a major crisis erupted with mass protests against the withdrawal of fuel subsidies.

Facing a full-scale insurrection Moreno’s government backed down, but his popularity failed to recover and he announced that he would not be seeking a second term. Correa was convicted in absentia of bribery, but his party nonetheless tried to nominate him for the vice-presidency; this was ruled invalid, but its presidential candidate, economist Andrés Arauz, is a firm ally of Correa and promised that he would be “his most trusted adviser.”

The opinion polls said that this year’s election would be a close race between Arauz and Lasso, making his third attempt at the top job. In the last few weeks Arauz opened up a clear lead of about five points in first-round voting intention; indigenous activist Yaku Pérez was polling third, about ten points further behind Lasso. The other 13 candidates were all back in the low single figures.

Well, so much for the polls. The actual result so far is quite different. With 86.3% counted, Arauz leads by not five but about twelve points, on 32.1% – well short of the 40% needed to avoid a runoff, but an imposing target nonetheless. And in second place is not Lasso but Pérez, who has 20.0%, some 38,000 votes ahead of Lasso’s 19.5%. Social democrat Xavier Hervas, who was an also-ran in the polls, managed a creditable fourth with 16.0%.

It’s not clear, however, that Pérez’s lead will hold up. The electoral commission’s sample count, which has been quite accurate in the past, put the margin between him and Lasso even closer, 20.04% to 19.97%. Late counting so far seems to have mostly favored Pérez – at one point yesterday Lasso was very slightly ahead – but the votes from Pérez’s strongest provinces are now almost all in, and there may be enough left in the more urbanised areas for Lasso to overtake him again.

For a country where trust in government institutions is clearly not high (and not helped by the devastation wrought by Covid-19), a close election is bad news. Pérez has promised that his supporters will hold a “vigil” to prevent manipulation of the count, and either way it’s expected there will be recounts and possible appeals.

But without doubt there will be a runoff, scheduled for 11 April. If it’s Arauz vs Lasso then it’s hard to see Lasso making up enough ground; Pérez and Hervas are both on the left, and although they have major differences with Arauz’s party their voters are unlikely to swing decisively to the right. But if Pérez hangs onto his lead and gets into the second round, it’s impossible to say what might happen.

It will also be a while before seat totals for the national assembly are available (most of the seats are allocated by Sainte-Laguë in multi-member constituencies), but on the basis of the raw votes there’s no prospect of any party having a majority. Arauz, however, if he wins the presidency, will at least have solid support in congress – particularly if he can work with Pérez’s party, MUPP, which is running a clear second.

Coming on top of Bolivia’s surprise result last October, Ecuador is a very good sign for the Latin American left. It’s a big electoral year in the region, with presidential contests coming up in Peru and Chile, plus off-year legislative elections in Mexico and Argentina. The opinion pollsters will need to try to lift their game.

UPDATE 7pm Tuesday (Ecuador time): After another day of counting, the official results now show 99.4% of returns processed. But that’s misleading, because another 6.0% have been processed but not yet incorporated in the count due to technical problems of one sort or another, such as signatures missing or figures not balancing.

Indigenous rights candidate Yaku Pérez is holding on to second place by the narrowest of margins: he has 19.9% to the centre-right’s Guillermo Lasso on 19.6%, a gap of just under 27,000 votes. (Leftist Andrés Arauz is well clear of both with 32.1%; the question is who will face him in the runoff.)

Pérez’s problem, however, is that the votes still to be tabulated are not drawn evenly from around the country. By far the largest number are in Guayas province (mostly urban Guayaquil), where on what’s been counted so far Lasso is beating Pérez by about three to one. With about a sixth of the province’s vote yet to be recorded, that potentially represents a net gain of about another 62,000 votes for Lasso.

Most of the rest are in the three provinces of Esmereldas, Los Rios and Manabi, which on the same basis would net Lasso another 9,000. So if most of the outstanding returns are accepted, and if they are mostly representative of what’s already been counted in their respective provinces, Lasso should overtake Pérez by something like half a percentage point.

Lasso sounds as if he is quietly confident. Here’s Google Translate’s version of his remarks yesterday:

The democratic spirit and respect for the law and respect for the authorities obliges me to wait for the official results 100% to be able to pronounce on any other scenario different from the one we have experienced until today.

FURTHER UPDATE 12.30am Wednesday (Ecuador time): Lasso has now cut Pérez’s lead in half, to a little under 13,000 votes. With something like 460,000 votes still to be tabulated, he should get there fairly comfortably. Comfortable, at least, compared to how it looked on Monday; much less so compared to the ten-point lead that the opinion polls had given him.

And probably to no avail anyway, since he stands to lose to Arauz in the runoff.

ANOTHER UPDATE 8.30pm Wednesday (Ecuador time): And with 97.3% now counted, Lasso has overtaken Pérez for second place, by just 4,500 votes, 19.66% to 19.61%. There’s rather less than 300,000 votes to come, of which almost 250,000 are in Guayas province, where Lasso is getting 25.5% of the vote to Pérez’s 8.7%. So I reckon he’ll end up ahead by between 40,000 and 50,000.

It’s also worth noting again the performance of social democrat Xavier Hervas, who was only in the mid single digits in the opinion polls but has finished a strong fourth with 15.8%. He has called for Lasso and Pérez to unite in the second round to defeat Arauz, saying he is willing “to sit down with anyone except the populist left.”

A DAY LATER, 7pm Thursday (Ecuador time): Almost done. With 99.2% counted, Lasso’s lead over Pérez has stretched to 28,000 votes: still very very close, but enough to be secure against the sort of routine errors that a recount might find. Arauz has also gained slightly, now on 32.7%, 13 points clear of Lasso. That’s a big margin to try to make up in a runoff.

FINAL UPDATE, 7.20pm Sunday (Ecuador time): And that’s basically it; there are 65 returns (0.16% of the total) still to be counted, but they’re all from overseas polling places, which have very small numbers. The left’s Andrés Arauz finishes on 32.7% and will contest the runoff against the centre-right’s Guillermo Lasso, who narrowly edged out indigenous rights candidate Yaku Pérez for second place, 19.7% to 19.4% – a margin of a bit over 33,000 votes.

Social democrat Xavier Hervas was fourth on 15.7%, and another twelve candidates shared the remaining 12.5%. Turnout was a high 81.1%, down just 0.5% on 2017, but the informal vote was again very high at 12.6% (voting is compulsory, although I don’t know how well that is enforced).


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