Ecuador’s president has been nibbling away at democracy for years — now he’s going for broke.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is exhausted. He’s not seeking reelection in 2017 and, in fact, has never wanted to. He’d rather “rest for a few years,” and spend time with his daughters in Belgium. He doesn’t want to “pass into history as the ambitious one who wanted to keep himself in power.”
At least that’s what he told local reporters two weeks ago, despite having campaigned for over a year to remove presidential term limits. His efforts came to fruition on December 3, when the country’s National Assembly, dominated by Correa’s Alianza Pais party, approved sixteen constitutional amendments, including the removal of term limits for all elected officials. Since Correa himself has stepped out of the 2017 race, his motives are somewhat of a mystery. But they could turn out to be a brilliant political maneuver that will prevent protest in the short term while allowing him to return to power in 2021 with the ability to run the country exactly as he wants, for as long as he wants.
The amendments were approved the day before a citywide festival in Quito, the country’s capital, when huge anti-Correa protests were unlikely to erupt, as they did this summer. “We’ve had it,” a protestor told Foreign Policy this spring, during a demonstration that packed a huge downtown plaza and ended with small fires burning in the square and protesters casually lobbing sticks at the police officers who were blocking the road to the presidential palace. She held a sign that said “The people, your mandate, demand a popular referendum: no to indefinite reelection.” But her list of grievances was much longer: the crackdown on freedom of speech, corruption, destruction of nature, and high taxes. Over the summer, ten straight days of protests exploded in response to a proposed inheritance tax. Correa warned of a possible coup. (His insistence that he will not stand for reelection in 2017 may have contributed to the relatively small size of the protests this month.)
It was not always this way. Correa swept to power in 2007 on a wave of popular support and, until 2014, he seemed unassailable. When he took power, Ecuador had suffered through over a decade of instability, enduring eight presidents in thirteen years. Then came Correa. He stood up to international companies like Chevron that had pushed previous governments around. He spoke Kichwa, the language of Ecuador’s largest indigenous group. He thumbed his nose at creditors who his country owed what he called “illegitimate debt” and unilaterally rewrote the disadvantageous repayment terms. To much of Ecuador’s citizens, he appeared a job-creating, social-service providing hero.
But many of Correa’s boosts to infrastructure, job creation programs, and social benefits relied on oil income. Now his overreach for power has combined with falling oil prices that have brought the Ecuadorian economy into recession. As challenges to Correa’s power have increased, the president has dug in his heels, restricted speech, and closed NGOs. The populace has responded with growing protest, which, in turn, has caused him to tighten his grip still further.
“When the tools of democracy are eliminated for citizens, the only thing you have left is the street,” says Silvia Buendía, a human rights lawyer and activist who has strongly opposed Correa’s attempts to change the constitution. “This is not stability,” she told Foreign Policy. “It’s a time bomb.”
The protests got so big this summer that the president, clearly shaken, called for a national dialogue, though he warned the public not to “make the mistake of confusing this opening with weakness.” He also tabled the inheritance tax that had initially sparked the protests. But by then, it was too late. His belated reach for compromise, or at least the appearance of compromise, was met with derision. Opponents called Correa supporters “sheep,” while Correístas called the activists “donkeys.” Correa himself dismisses his opponents as “rightists” and “coup-mongers.”
Correa presided over the writing of a new constitution in 2008, famously granting rights to nature, among other reforms. And it is that very constitution that has become a thorn in his side. He said in 2012 that it gave too many guarantees of rights and made it difficult to govern. This year he lamented having included the “right of resistance” in the constitution, which allows Ecuadorians to resist actions by their government or other entities that attempt to limit their constitutional rights. Some of the new amendments address these perceived flaws.
“It’s not right for a country to change the constitution every eight or ten years,” opposition Assemblyman Ramiro Aguilar told Foreign Policy. The changes made on Thursday include limiting the right of citizens to put policies to popular referendums and expanding the power of the military. The expansion of military power is vaguely worded, but opponents fear that the military may now be used to aid the police in crushing protests. One of the amendments describes communication as a “public service,” which could make all forms of media subject to increased government control.
Aguilar calls the changes “the dream of every dictator.” He says allowing someone to campaign indefinitely could be acceptable in a country with a clean electoral system, because voters could simply reject a candidate they had grown tired of. But, as Aguilar explains, in Ecuador, where Correa’s political party has influence over the National Election Council, there is a danger that he could manipulate election results to stay in power indefinitely.
Carlos Ponce, the Latin American Programs Director for Freedom House, an international watchdog group that promotes democracy, said in a December 4 statement that the amendments “violate democratic principles” and mark “a clear step backward.” A year ago, the Committee to Protect Journalists warned that classifying the media as a “public service” was dangerous to freedom of the press and urged legislators to modify the amendment.
Given the country’s shaky economy and the widespread dissatisfaction with the government, it’s not clear that Correa could win in 2017 were he to run. But he’s gone further than simply promising not to stand for election. In mid-November, he announced that a “transitional” period would be put into effect along with the new amendments, barring him (or any elected official who had already served for two terms) from running in the 2017 elections. The transition period was approved along with the amendments.
In so doing, he has left the door open for whoever is elected in 2017 — either from his party or from the opposition — to have what Carlos de la Torre, a sociology professor at the University of Kentucky, calls “the perfect institutional setting for an authoritarian government.” Torre says that Correa’s decision not to run in 2017 might have to do with the economy. “He wouldn’t want to be president in a situation of scarcity,” Torre says, because he doesn’t want to go back on his promises and make difficult structural changes during a time of austerity.
He could then run in 2021 — and into perpetuity. “His presidency will be remembered … as a time of prosperity, of modernization, and people will forget all the authoritarianism of his term, or at least that’s what he’s hoping,” says Torre. “But it would be very difficult for him to control whoever he puts in charge. That’s where Correa’s gamble becomes complicated.”
Torre sees the uncertainty in Ecuador as part of a larger trend in the region, the beginning of “the decline of radical populism,” that has seen the defeat of Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, and the loss of Nicolas Maduro’s party in Venezuelan National Assembly last Friday. He says “perhaps [it is] because radical populism was very closely tied with the boom in the prices of commodities … and now with the drop in the prices of oil it’s unsustainable. Their biggest problem has always been the succession and endurance of these regimes.”
After the amendments passed on Thursday, Correa took to Twitter to declare “a triumph for the Ecuadorian people” and to lambast his opponents as “mestizos masquerading as indigenous, 19th century labor leaders, populist bankers with no talent, [and] dishonest journalists.”
He then set to making fun of his detractors. “He doesn’t miss a single one of my speeches,” he said about one, and then joked that after he leaves office, the critic will listen every day to the love song “If You Hadn’t Gone Away, I Would Be So Happy.”
Emboldened by his success last Thursday, and absent the pressure of the 2017 elections, Correa quickly announced that he would propose a second packet of amendments, and re-introduce the inheritance tax that sparked the protests this summer. Playing the long game might just work for him.
Photo credit: RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images