Ecuador: stakes high ahead of presidential runoff
Following a campaign overshadowed by the murder of an anti-corruption candidate, the first round of Ecuador’s election brought surprises. The murdered candidate’s replacement came third, while banana heir Daniel Noboa came from nowhere to finish second, entering the runoff to compete for the presidency with leftist Luisa González. Whoever wins will hold power for only 18 months – too little time for the scale of the problems they need to tackle. Although different in many respects, neither candidate appears to have a strategy to deal with the penetration of organised crime that is quickly turning Ecuador into one of Latin America’s most violent countries.
Ten days before Ecuador’s 20 August election, a presidential candidate was shot dead on the campaign trail in the capital, Quito. Fernando Villavicencio was not just any candidate; he was the one who’d made it his mission to denounce government corruption and the penetration of organised crime. He’d promised to take on drug trafficking and gang violence, which have recently turned Ecuador into one of the region’s most violent countries. With voting held amid tight security, candidates were forced to finish their campaigns in bulletproof vests.
Election day was, thankfully, peaceful and well attended, with turnout at over 82 per cent. While there was no violence on the ground, a cyber-attack blamed on seven different countries seemed to affect the ability to vote of Ecuadoran citizens abroad. But the climate at home remained tense, with a state of emergency in effect and a heavy military presence deployed to guard voting sites. Villavicencio’s replacement cast his vote wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet, surrounded by security forces.
This added additional elements of uncertainty and fear to an early vote called to elect a president, vice-president and the 137 National Assembly members who will serve for just a year and a half. Their job is to complete the current presidential and legislative terms that cut short by the activation of the ‘cross-death’ mechanism by President Guillermo Lasso in May – a constitutional manoeuvre under which he dissolved the National Assembly to stop it impeaching him. This allowed Lasso a couple of months when he could rule by decree but also cut his term short. His political weakness was further revealed by the fact that he didn’t run in the election and his party didn’t bother to put up a candidate.
Voting brought a breakthrough on two referendums on fossil fuel extraction and the environment. It also left Ecuador with a fragmented National Assembly and an inconclusive presidential race. With no candidate securing enough votes, on 15 October there’ll be a runoff between two very different prospective presidents, leftist Luisa González and young business leader Daniel Noboa.
Diverse offer, fragmented vote
Political fragmentation and voter volatility made election results hard to predict. Out of eight presidential candidates, polls suggested four had fighting chances. The front-runner was Luisa González of Revolución Ciudadana (Citizen Revolution), the left-wing party founded by former president Rafael Correa, in power from 2007 to 2017. González came first with 33.5 per cent of the vote. Her party also got close to 40 per cent of the National Assembly vote.
González held various government roles under Correa, and her campaign hailed Revolución Ciudadana’s government record, promising to restore social spending to tackle the unsatisfied demands of the mass protests that have erupted in recent years. She wants to revive policies that were set aside following the 2017 breakup between Correa and his successor, Lenín Moreno. Correa has lived in Belgium since, and was tried and convicted in absentia in 2020 on corruption charges linked to the wide-ranging scandal involving Brazilian construction company Odebrecht.
Fernando Villavicencio’s candidacy had caught the imagination of many. Villavicencio was a former investigative journalist and trade union activist elected to the National Assembly in 2021. Until the Assembly’s dissolution in June he chaired the Commission for Oversight and Political Control. He dared name those responsible for crime and drug trafficking in Ecuador.
Villavicencio was one of the journalists who uncovered the bribery scandal that resulted in Correa’s conviction. Long a critic of Correa’s government, his house was raided in 2013 and he was sentenced to 18 months in jail for defaming the president. He sought political asylum in Peru and only came back to Ecuador after Correa left office in 2017.
When he was killed, Villavicencio was under police protection after receiving serious threats, including from people linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. He was the highest-profile politician – and the only presidential candidate – assassinated in Ecuador since democratic rule was restored in 1979, but far from the only politician killed this election season: Agustín Intriago, mayor of the coastal town of Manta, was killed in July, and there were several others before him.
Following Villavicencio’s assassination, his friend and fellow journalist Christian Zurita stepped in as the Movimiento Construye candidate. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted him precautionary measures to ensure his safety. As the last opinion polls had been published shortly before Villavicencio’s death, and his name and photo still appeared on the ballots, it wasn’t clear how voters would react.
Despite having never before taken part in an election, Zurita received a significant vote share, but on 16.5 per cent finished short of the runoff. Construye, however, came second in the National Assembly race, with almost 21 per cent. It will likely form an independent group with significant influence.
Instead the runoff will be contested by surprise candidate Daniel Noboa, who finished second with 23.5 per cent. He’s the 35-year-old son of billionaire Álvaro Noboa, who unsuccessfully ran for president five times. Without a party of his own, Noboa heads the presidential ticket of National Democratic Action (ADN), a coalition that includes MOVER, the remnants of the old PAIS Alliance founded by Correa to run for office in 2006. If he makes it to the presidency, Noboa will have a hard time with the National Assembly, as ADN only took 15 per cent of the votes in the legislative election.
Closely behind Zurita, with 14.7 per cent, came Jan Topic, known as the Ecuadorian Bukele, a reference to El Salvador’s maverick populist president. He’s an economist and businessperson in the telecoms and private security sector who boasts of his past in the French Foreign Legion and his participation in several recent conflicts, claiming his military experience would help him fight crime. At the head of the Alliance for a Country without Fear, his iron-fist proposals to deal with the security crisis may have won him votes in the last stretch of the campaign.
Towards the back of the pack, Indigenous leader and environmentalist activist Yaku Pérez, candidate of an alliance of small parties, took a meagre four per cent of the vote. Two years earlier, as the candidate of the Indigenous Pachakutik party, he’d claimed third place and missed the runoff by a hair’s breadth.
Voices from the frontline
Mauricio Alarcón Salvador is executive director of Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo (Citizenship and Development Foundation), an Ecuadorian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes and defends the rule of law, democratic principles and individual freedoms and encourages citizen participation, social control, transparency, open government and public innovation.
Political violence is nothing new in Ecuador: in recent elections there have been candidates who experienced threats and attacks, which in some cases have cost them their lives.
However, this is the first instance in a long time that a presidential candidate has been the victim of an assassination. The conditions under which the attack on Fernando Villavicencio occurred are revealing. He was a candidate with a risk assessment of over 95 per cent, who had police protection and had been denouncing constant threats against him.
This affects not only the electoral landscape but also Ecuador’s democracy itself, which has allowed room for organised crime and narco-politics to grow. If the proper institutions act in a timely manner and not only prevent events like this from happening again, but also manage to put an end to the prevailing impunity, we will end up strengthening a weak democracy that has been crying out for help. For this to happen, there is much work ahead, focused on coordinating efforts between public institutions, civil society, the private sector and political actors in ways that put the country ahead of any particular interest.
But we saw an apathetic campaign, very weak on proposals. Candidates seem to be fully aware that what is being elected is a transitional government that will last a few months, and they are not giving it due importance. Little has been said about fundamental rights and freedoms in a context where security is the main focus of public attention. This is of great concern to us, because in the face of the critical situation of insecurity at the national level, people demand quick solutions regardless of whether their implementation violates rights and freedoms. Regarding security, for example, several candidates have referred to the use of force outside of what is established by basic rights and international standards in force in Ecuador and the region.
Unfortunately, it is difficult for a situation as serious as the one Ecuador is going through to be resolved in such a short period of time as the one that will be afforded to the future president. The main concerns of Ecuadorians are centred on insecurity, the economic crisis and corruption. It is hoped that the new government will act on these issues by listening to people and putting an end to the arrogance that has characterised the outgoing government. Although time is short, the transitional government should establish basic lines of action, either for continuity through the next period or so that whoever comes to power in 2025 will have a basis for doing so.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Mauricio. Read the full interview here.
Organised crime the big issue
Violence as a result of organised crime was at the forefront of voters’ minds even before it was compounded by political violence. Villavicencio was the only candidate who promised to act on the interconnected problems of insecurity, organised crime and government corruption. The only other candidate who suggested a potential solution to voters’ key concern was Topic – but he only proposed fighting violence with more violence; civic space restrictions and human rights violations would inevitably follow.
The problem is major. A bloody turf war between rival criminal organisations fighting for control of drug trafficking routes has plunged Ecuador into unprecedented violence. Violent deaths have quadrupled since 2019. In the port city of Guayaquil, a strategic hub for drug shipments to Europe and the USA, there’s now the frequent sight of bodies with signs of torture hanging from bridges and overpasses.
In 2022, Ecuador descended to a record level of criminal violence: 4,603 violent deaths were recorded, a rate of 25 per 100,000 people, compared to 13.7 in 2021. This made it the country with the highest growth in rates of criminal violence in all of Latin America. The upward trend has continued, with 3,568 further violent deaths in the first half of 2023 alone. At this pace, the year could end with over 7,100 fatalities, a rate of 39 per 100,000 people, making it one of the region’s most violent countries.
According to official sources, some 90 per cent of violent deaths are the result of crime, and most of these are linked to drug trafficking. Eighty-three per cent of violent deaths have happened in five of 24 provinces – those on the ‘drug route’.
The other key issue in play in the elections was more positive: two referendums were held on whether to continue or halt two extractive projects: oil exploitation in Yasuní National Park and metal mining in the Andean Chocó. Fifty-nine per cent of voters supported the decision not to extract oil from the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and more than 68 per cent sided with banning mining in the Andean Chocó reserve.
This is a historic outcome, with the Yasuní result said to be the first in the world where people have voted to keep climate-destroying fossil fuels in the ground. The results deal a significant blow to extractive industries – but also to state officials concerned about the lost revenues.
The majority have made clear they don’t want a return to extractivism – but a significant minority have also backed González, a candidate who refused to speak out against these extractive projects and instead promised a return to social policies that may be funded by the proceeds of extraction. The problems were made clear during the Correa era, when the government embraced extractive policies on the basis of funding social spending and repressed the Indigenous communities who opposed it.
Too big a job, too little time
Ecuador faces significant challenges, not least of which are the penetration of organised crime and its potentially lethal effects on democracy. To face these problems effectively it needs a government that, first, has the will to confront them and, second, has the tools to do so. It has so far had neither.
We saw an apathetic campaign, very weak on proposals. Candidates seem to be fully aware that what is being elected is a transitional government that will last a few months, and they are not giving it due importance.
The two candidates who will battle it out on 15 October offer a stark ideological contrast, and Ecuador may see a revival of the wrestling match between ‘Correism’ and ‘anti-Correism’ – a political struggle increasingly distant from most people’s daily concerns. It isn’t necessarily a clash between progressive and conservative perspectives, particularly when it comes to environmental issues and gender equality. González is seeking to become Ecuador’s first female president, but her party and its leader are no champions of women’s rights. Correa, a social conservative, led the charge against gender justice struggles, which he smeared as ‘gender ideology’.
But in one regard the two contenders are alike: neither has focused their attention on the links between politics and organised crime.
Whoever gets elected on 15 October will only have 18 months to get things done – or at the very least, to lay the groundwork for their successor to build on. It seems like too short a time for too big a challenge.
Obstacles would likely be easier to navigate for González, who will have a stronger parliamentary base. If the experience of President Lasso, a former banker with a pro-business agenda, is any indication, newcomer Noboa would struggle with small congressional backing. In two and a half years, Lasso could barely pass three laws and the fact that he was cornered by the National Assembly is the reason Ecuador had to go to the polls again.
The best the winner can do is to start building the broad coalition needed to tackle Ecuador’s growing social, economic, environmental and security problems. That will mean enabling and working with civil society to meet the challenge of combating organised crime and standing up to impunity while respecting rights. It’s a demanding mission, but it’s the only alternative to continuing to plunge into violence.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Whichever presidential candidate wins the election must foster broad political alliances to avoid the kind of deadlocks that resulted in the premature end of the outgoing government.
The new government must work together with all possible stakeholders to dismantle the networks of corruption and impunity that feed organised crime.
The new government must recognise the legitimacy of civil society, uphold its space for action and work with it to address the major challenges facing Ecuador.
Cover photo by Martín Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images