Latin America’s besieged left faces showdown in Ecuador

Lenin Moreno gives a speech during his campaign closing rally in Quito on March 30 © AFP

In a low-income area of Ecuador’s capital, followers of Lenín Boltaire Moreno sang along at his final rally to a quintessential Latin American revolutionary song, composed in 1973 by Chile’s Quilapayún: “The people united will never be defeated”.

“I am here to celebrate in advance the triumph of Lenín Moreno, because he is the continuation of a project that started 10 years ago,” said Mónica Ortíz, a loyal follower of this protégé of outgoing President Rafael Correa. At stake in Sunday’s second round of Ecuador’s presidential election is whether the decade-long leftist legacy of the fiery Mr Correa will continue.

Mr Moreno, named after Russia’s communist revolutionary icon, won the first round in February with 39.3 per cent of the vote.

He faces Guillermo Lasso, a former head of Banco de Guayaquil, who has campaigned on tax cuts and the creation of 1m jobs. In the first round, he enticed 28.1 per cent of Ecuador’s electorate to back him. However, even if Mr Lasso galvanised chunks of the divided opposition, polls show Mr Moreno has pulled ahead.

Mr Correa, a US-educated populist who is legally barred from a further consecutive term, is Ecuador’s most powerful president since the late gun-wielding caudillo, León Febres Cordero in the 1980s. In a historically fractious country, Mr Correa has lasted a decade while none of his three predecessors completed their terms. 

Bolstered by the last oil boom, the economy of this small Opec nation doubled in size, from $51bn in 2007 to roughly $100bn in 2015, bringing considerable social benefits. But a double-whammy of lower oil prices and a strong US dollar, Ecuador’s official currency, has spurred underemployment and disenchantment.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean expects economic growth “to be just positive” at 0.3 per cent in 2017, following a likely 2 per cent contraction in 2016. 

The vote is being seen as a plebiscite on whether Mr Correa’s ideas are still popular after the boom. “Many voters are simply after a change in the economic and political model. Moreno does not have a fresh discourse, does not offer anything new, while Lasso offers radical change,” says Santiago Basabe, a political scientist with Flacso university in Quito.

Opposition presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso greets supporters during a campaign rally in Guayaquil, Ecuador on March 30 © EPA

Analysts say the April 2 runoff promises to deliver a photo-finish. The Quito-based political analyst Simón Pachano forecasts “a very narrow result”, similar to the one in Peru last year, when Pedro Pablo Kuczynski defeated Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a disgraced autocrat, by a little over 41,000 votes.

Such a tight result may ignite tensions in the divided Andean nation. Opposing camps are urging supporters to take to the streets to ensure there is no fraud.

The vote is another big test for the region’s languishing left. A potential victory for Mr Lasso would end the “citizen’s revolution” of the mercurial Mr Correa, further shrinking the presence of leftwing governments in South America. It will also eject WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from exile in Ecuador’s embassy in London.

Thursday’s takeover of Venezuela’s legislature by a Supreme Court loyal to socialist President Nicolás Maduro, an ally of Mr Correa, has sparked calls that the crisis-ridden country is now a full-blown dictatorship. Events there could spur fears in some Ecuadoreans, pushing indecisive voters into Mr Lassos camp, say observers.

“Say no to those who want to turn us into Venezuela!” Mr Lasso told supporters during his closing speech in Quito this week. His backers accuse Mr Correa of being an autocratic bully who undermined democratic freedoms, used the media as a whipping boy and allowed corruption at state-oil company Petroecuador.

Mr Moreno, who uses a wheelchair since he was shot in a botched robbery almost two decades ago, has vowed to continue Mr Correa’s policies, expanding social schemes.

The campaign has degenerated into nasty mud-slinging. Mr Moreno’s followers scorn his rival as a snobbish banker associated with the country’s traumatic 1999 financial crisis that cost the savings of thousands of Ecuadoreans, and accuse him of having questionable offshore holdings. “It is clear from evidence that he is involved in capital flight, which is an issue in Ecuador,” says Mark Weisbrot, a left-leaning economist with the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, who follows Ecuador. “Say no to the banker!” Mr Moreno has urged.

Mr Lasso has responded that all of his assets are on the public record, unlike “the list” of government officials allegedly involved in corruption related to bribes that Brazilian constructor Odebrecht paid in Ecuador.

For Iván Rodríguez, a Lasso supporter in Guayaquil: “Lasso represents change to the atrocities, abuses, and corruption that happened during the 10 years of Correa.”

The article Latin America’s besieged left faces showdown in Ecuador was originally published at FT.com.