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The left makes a comeback in Ecuador’s local elections

The February 5 votes confirm that Correísmo is still the most influential political movement in Ecuador

Latin America and the CaribbeanSocial Movements

Voting in Ecuador, 2021. Photo courtesy AS/COA/AP.

On February 5, a series of important votes occurred in Ecuador. Roughly 80 percent of Ecuadoreans voted on 23 provincial prefects, 221 mayors, 864 urban councillors, 443 rural councillors, 4,109 parish council members, and elected seven members for the Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS).

Ecuadoreans also participated in an eight-question referendum put forward by right-wing president and former banker Guillermo Lasso, the goal of which was to modify the country’s constitution, a document ratified and implemented in 2008 under leftist former President Rafael Correa. Among other things, Lasso hoped to legalize the extradition of Ecuadoreans charged with felonies related to international organized crime, grant autonomy to the State Attorney General’s Office, and reduce the size of the National Assembly.

In both the local elections and the referendum, Lasso’s right-wing government suffered a staggering defeat, proving the enduring popularity of Correa’s Citizen Revolution Movement (RC). The RC won nine of the country’s 23 prefectures as well as 60 mayorships, including in the two largest cities of Guayaquil and Quito. In Guayaquil, the left’s victory is especially significant, given that the city has been dominated by the right-wing Social Christian Party for the past 30 years.

In another blow to Lasso, Ecuadoreans voted “no” to all the questions on his referendum. This is particularly embarrassing given that the referendum was meant to supply Lasso’s embattled government with an easy win. As Sebastián Hurtado explained in the lead-up to the vote: “The questions have been carefully designed to generate the least resistance from the public and secure a political win that can be presented as a renewed mandate for the Lasso administration, providing him with some political breathing room.”

“[But] if the process turns into a referendum on a very unpopular government,” Hurtado added, “the Lasso government will come out even weaker, exposed to renewed efforts aimed at forcing early elections next year.”

For the past six years, the leaders, candidates, and supporters of the Citizens’ Revolution have faced considerable repression within Ecuador. Following the end of Correa’s third term in 2017, former vice president Lenín Moreno was elected president with the left-wing Alianza PAIS party. Voters gave him a mandate to continue Correa’s progressive agenda, but Moreno betrayed them, turning sharply to the right. He cut thousands of public sector jobs, withdrew Ecuador from the leftist-oriented Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and welcomed the US military back into the country (Correa had kicked them out during his tenure). As a result, his approval rating plummeted and he received only 1.5 percent of the vote in the 2021 presidential election.

Correa’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Guillaume Long has stated that Moreno never intended to be a popular leader, but to destroy the Citizens’ Revolution from the inside and prevent the future success of Correísmo: “Fully aware of his transitional role… Moreno’s goal was never really to have a strong party of his own. His aim was to make the biggest political force in Ecuador [the Citizens’ Revolution] party-less. This he achieved.”

As Moreno transformed Alianza PAIS into a right-wing, anti-Correísta party, the government-controlled electoral authorities sought to prevent Correa supporters from registering a new party and fairly contesting elections. Meanwhile, Moreno’s government persecuted Correa himself, who was living in Belgium following his presidency, on charges that Interpol described as “obviously a political matter” when refusing Quito’s request for an arrest warrant. Moreno also betrayed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom Correa had granted asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London as the US sought to punish him for helping expose Western war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2019, protestors rose up in defiance of Moreno’s neoliberal policies, which included taking a multibillion-dollar loan from the IMF and cutting long-time fuel subsidies. Moreno responded to the protests by declaring a state of emergency and dispatching the police, who killed 11 protestors and injured 1,500. Anti-Moreno protests surged again in 2020 due to the government’s failed COVID-19 strategy, rising unemployment, and further cuts to education spending.

The Ecuadorean left, though seriously weakened, was eventually able to assemble a coalition for the 2021 elections and run a presidential candidate: progressive economist Andrés Arauz. Arauz received endorsements from other progressive leaders in the region, including Evo Morales and José Mujica, and despite the years of internal repression against the left, he came in first place in the vote’s first round. However, he narrowly lost to the right-wing candidate, Guillermo Lasso, in the runoff.

Since assuming the presidency, Lasso has governed in the same conservative fashion that has discredited neoliberalism throughout the hemisphere, resulting in high food and fuel prices, inflation, and violent repression against social movements resisting his policies.

Under Lasso, the protests have continued. In June 2022, nationwide protests spearheaded by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) demanded that Lasso guarantee affordable food and fuel, increase funding for health care and education, and end mining concessions on Indigenous territories. In response, the government declared a state of exception in six provinces and arbitrarily arrested protest leaders like Leonidas Iza, president of CONAIE. Police killed numerous protestors and, in one case, lied about the cause of death, claiming that a Kichwa man whose skull was shattered by a teargas canister died because he was handling explosive devices.

As the resistance intensified, Lasso refused to negotiate with protest leaders. His Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo demeaned protestors as “drunks” and “terrorists” and accused them of being influenced by “radical groups” like the Citizens’ Revolution. Meanwhile, Canada and the US backed the Lasso government’s line on the protests, with the Canadian Embassy in Ecuador labelling them “violent riots.”

When the protests persisted, however, Lasso agreed to negotiate. After meeting with the social movements, his government announced plans to reform the mining sector, including by making mining investment in Ecuador “environmentally and socially responsible.” Activists, however, denounced these moves as smoke and mirrors, pointing out that Lasso’s reforms did not include the right to prior consultation and his administration continued to incentivize foreign mining investment in the country.

By December 2022, Lasso’s approval rating had fallen below 20 percent. The National Assembly, in which Lasso allies are a minority, continued to resist his agenda. At the same time, increased poverty and economic instability under Moreno and Lasso had strengthened the power of drug traffickers and gangs, while rising violence has showcased the government’s inability to deal effectively with these groups. These factors contributed to Lasso’s resounding defeat in local elections and the referendum.

Following the elections, the RC released a statement reading: “After more than six years of persecution, of taking away the legal status of our political organization, of unjustly imprisoning our comrades and forcing others to live in exile…we demonstrated that we are the main and largest political force in Ecuador.” Rafael Correa tweeted, “We are once again the Citizen Revolution: we achieved the impossible. We are almost there. Until victory, always!”

The February 5 votes confirm that Correísmo is still the most influential political movement in Ecuador. Despite six years of attempted criminalization by the forces of the right, the Ecuadorean left has made an obvious comeback. With the left-wing opposition now calling for early elections, it is uncertain how long Guillermo Lasso will be able to cling to power.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.

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