Ecuador Just Voted Against Populism, but Its Democracy Is Far from Healthy 

Conservative Guillermo Lasso will take office as an isolated president with a weak mandate, tasked with restoring faith in the country's institutions.

By Will Freeman, a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University and a Central America research fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Guillermo Lasso celebrates after runoff elections on April 11 in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Guillermo Lasso celebrates after runoff elections on April 11 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Gerardo Menoscal/Getty Images

On Sunday, voters in Ecuador elected a candidate running for president on a conservative platform for the first time in nearly 15 years. With 99 percent of votes counted, Guillermo Lasso, a former banker and finance minister who advocates shrinking the state and cutting taxes, led his nearest rival, socialist Andrés Arauz, by almost 5 points in the country’s runoff election. Both Arauz and former President Rafael Correa congratulated Lasso on his victory Sunday night, as Lasso, a longtime Correa opponent, pledged pro-business reforms and continued respect for independent institutions and the free press.

More than just a competition between two candidates, the polarizing election became a referendum on Ecuador’s recent past. Arauz ran as the handpicked successor of the populist former leader Correa and promised to return Ecuador to the era of Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution”: a period from 2007 to 2017 marked by high growth and the emergence of a new middle class, but also by repression and censorship of Correa’s civil society critics.

The vote shows that nearly four years after Correa left office, distrust of his brand of authoritarian populism still runs deep among a broad cross-section of the population. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic twice pushed Ecuador’s health system to the brink of collapse and plunged 3.2 million additional Ecuadorians into poverty, a plurality of voters preferred an untested alternative over a return to the past.

Disillusion with democratic institutions is running high, and Lasso will take office as an isolated president with a weak mandate, given the balance of parties in the recently elected legislature. The top three left-wing parties and coalitions hold almost 70 percent of the seats. That means he will face a much bigger challenge in governing than in winning a plurality of votes: He will need to convince his opponents that even when they lose, it’s still worth playing by democratic rules of the game.

Lasso’s ability to govern will likely be determined by the respective participation of three coalitions that have defined Ecuadorian politics since Correa’s final years in office. Lasso is a longtime leader of the first coalition: upper- and upper-middle-income voters and businesspeople eager to reduce the state’s role in the economy and Ecuador’s towering external debt, a group that also supports the current president, Lenín Moreno, who chose not to run for reelection. The second bloc, Arauz’s Union for Hope coalition, joins together the new middle class that emerged during Correa’s years in office and urban low-income voters who remember the Citizens’ Revolution as a golden era of upward mobility.

Lasso’s ability to govern will likely be determined by the respective participation of three coalitions that have defined Ecuadorian politics since Correa’s final years in office.

Between the two poles, a third bloc has built significant political momentum in recent years: young, socially progressive center-left voters and Indigenous communities who reject both Correa’s illiberal, extractive development model and Lasso’s neoliberalism. In first-round elections on Feb. 7, these voters supported two fresh faces, delivering a combined 35 percent of the vote to Indigenous leader Yaku Pérez of the Pachakutik party and political outsider Xavier Hervas of the Democratic Left party. Pérez alleged fraud after narrowly failing to reach the second round and requested a recount, but Ecuador’s National Electoral Council voted to stop the tally before it was complete, sowing suspicion among Pérez’s supporters of unfair dealing.

Once the competition narrowed to the two most polarizing alternatives, the election became an unpopularity contest. Both Lasso and Arauz tried their best to style themselves as unity candidates, as voters from the third bloc were forced to choose which candidate they disliked the least.

Lasso built his career as president of one of Ecuador’s largest private banks and became finance minister during the country’s traumatic 1999 economic meltdown. Fairly or unfairly, many among the left and center-left continue to associate him with the harsh austerity policies that followed. Still, as the race entered its final mile, Lasso broadened his support by pledging to keep his conservative religious views out of politics and to hold a referendum on protecting Yasuni National Park from oil exploration.

Arauz proved less able to unload his reputational baggage, perhaps because the abuses of the Correa years were fresh in voters’ minds. From the start, Arauz’s campaign was consistently linked to Correa’s legacy: Slogans promoted by prominent supporters proclaimed “Arauz is Correa,” and posters emphasized the image of the former president. In the final weeks of the campaign, Arauz muted the praise for his political mentor and talked vaguely about learning from past mistakes.

But most Ecuadorians were not ready to forgive or forget. An Arauz victory would likely have meant a return from exile for Correa, who has evaded corruption charges by remaining in Belgium for the past several years, as well as a rollback of anti-corruption investigations into Correa’s inner circle and a new lease on life for the ex-president’s political career. For both the right and the independent center-left, that was a bridge too far. Many on the center-left seem to have decided they would rather be the democratic opposition to a right-wing government than risk becoming the targets of repression by a left-wing one.

Still, the election’s outcome had more to do with abstention and ballot-spoiling, which far exceeded typical levels, than either candidate’s last-minute maneuvering.

Still, the election’s outcome had more to do with abstention and ballot-spoiling, which far exceeded typical levels, than either candidate’s last-minute maneuvering. In the last presidential elections in 2017, only around 6 percent of voters handed in blank or invalid ballots. This time the figure reached 17 percent, and around 20 percent abstained despite laws that make voting mandatory. Null votes exceeded votes cast for Arauz in six provinces and came close to doing so in five others, which is far from a vote of confidence in the country’s institutions in their current form. It’s hardly a sign of democratic well-being when 1 in 5 citizens of a country goes to the polls and chooses “none of the above.” Correa’s liberalizing successor, Moreno, made some progress toward reforming these institutions. But he has made almost as many blunders, sidestepping due process guarantees to purge Correístas from the state in a way that played perfectly into Correa’s narrative of judicial persecution, and enacting austerity policies that left ordinary Ecuadorians unshielded against the past year’s economic chaos. Arauz and his allies are now on the spot to prove they can learn from their movement’s past mistakes and behave like a loyal opposition, but Lasso must also learn from Moreno’s missteps to avoid committing the same mistakes

Lasso, a textbook pro-business politician, will face an uphill battle to implement his policy agenda and perhaps to even finish out his term in office. On the campaign trail, he pledged to cut individual and corporate taxes; open Ecuador up to free trade deals with the United States, Europe, and Asia; and push forward with a $6.5 billion IMF debt negotiation and austerity measures initiated under Moreno. Lasso also promised to take a hard stance against Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and strengthen institutions to fight corruption.

However, he will find scarce legislative support in Ecuador’s newly elected National Assembly, where his Creating Opportunities party and its ally, the Social Christian Party, control just a fifth of the seats. Even among parties on the left, there is much division. The largest legislative bloc is formed by Arauz’s Union for Hope coalition, which remains loyal to Correa’s vision of active state intervention in the economy and staunchly opposed to Lasso’s slate of market reforms. The next two biggest left-wing parties in the legislature—the Pachakutik party, which is committed to environmentalism and Indigenous people’s rights, and the Democratic Left—are in talks to form a united front. The coalition plans to oppose privatization of state enterprises, reform of the Central Bank, and new extractive projects that could cause environmental harm. Pachakutik and the Democratic Left remain bitter toward Correa, who put hundreds of Indigenous leaders and environmentalists on trial during his time in office.

Pérez’s substantial support during the first round of this year’s elections demonstrated that many voters seeking progressive candidates wanted a very different path than a return to Correa’s policies. For Lasso, the emergence of an independent center-left presents an opportunity. In the best-case scenario, Lasso will realize he needs to work with the more moderate, center-left parties to govern. By genuinely including these parties in forming policy, Lasso would send Correa’s and Arauz’s allies a clear message that it pays to play within established institutional channels and that venturing outside them is a fool’s errand.

However, if Lasso attempts to go it alone or proves unwilling to make substantial policy concessions, he could quickly make friends out of enemies, and all three left-wing parties could find common ground in opposing him in the National Assembly or, more ominously, in the streets. In this worst-case scenario, Ecuador could come full circle to the presidential ousters and economic chaos that plagued the 1990s—an outcome all sides have a stake in avoiding.

Unfortunately, the present uncertainty hardly makes Ecuador particularly unique among its South American neighbors. Since commodity prices plummeted and corruption cases multiplied in the mid-2010s, electoral fragmentation and anti-system candidates have thrived across the region. In Peru’s first-round presidential elections, also held on April 11, anti-system candidates on the left and right emerged as presidential front-runners, which is likely to only exacerbate endemic instability that plagued previous governments. Peru is just the most dramatic example of a broader regional trend toward anti-politics and instability. If Ecuador is lucky and Lasso governs wisely, it could still prove the exception.

Will Freeman is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University. Twitter: @WillGFreeman