Has the pink tide truly turned?, Ecuador might have the answer

Ten years ago, as Latin America’s “pink tide” reached its high-water mark, leftwing leaders such as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa were in power across the continent.

But death and election defeat have since culled their numbers and trimmed their power. Cuba is on a path of moderate reform after the death of Castro. Venezuela was lurching from one crisis to another even before Chávez succumbed to cancer in 2013. Morales’s days as president of Bolivia are also numbered after he failed in an attempt last year to change the constitution to allow him to run for re-election.

This Sunday, Ecuador will also make a change, with the first presidential election in more than a decade not to be contested by Correa, who is stepping aside after winning three consecutive terms. Whether the country now follows the continental trend towards centre-right government or remains a bastion for the left is being contested in an unusually dirty campaign.

The favourite is Lenín Moreno, a former vice-president under Correa who is standing for the ruling Alianza País coalition, but very different in style and politics from the outgoing president. As his first name suggests, Moreno is from a leftwing family, but he has a reputation for inclusiveness openness and humour that earned him approval ratings above 90% when he quit the vice-presidency in 2013 to take up a United Nations post as special envoy on disability. If he wins, he would be the first paraplegic head of state, having used a wheelchair since he was shot in a robbery.

Opinion polls in Ecuador are notoriously unreliable and politically skewed, but regardless of affiliation they all give Moreno a strong lead. Few, however, suggest he will secure an outright win in the first round, which would require either a majority of votes cast or more than 40% and a 10-point lead over his nearest rival. If he falls short of this target, there would be run-off on 2 April against the second-place candidate, most probably Guillermo Lasso, of the rightwing Creo-Suma alliance..

Lasso, a former banker, promises to cut taxes, create jobs, be more transparent in business deals with China, and evict the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the country’s embassy in London. Although he trails in the polls, a second-round vote might allow him to win support from the six unsuccessful candidates. Cynthia Viteri, a rightwing libertarian, still has an outside chance of pipping him to the run-off spot, but Lasso expressed confidence of victory. “There’s no doubt that Ecuador is the next country where the bells of liberty will ring again in Latin America,” he told the Guardian. “People are tired of totalitarian regimes that have turned their governments IGNORE INTO dictatorships.”

The ruling camp say this is bluster. Although they laugh at suggestions that Ecuador is – as one regional journalist put it – the “Stalingrad of the left in Latin America”, they believe the country can resist a regional rightward tide.

“This is a very important election. There have been defeats of the left in Latin America. There is no doubt about that,” the foreign minister, Guillaume Long, said. “We play by the rules of democracy so we always knew something could happen. But I don’t think it will happen here on 19 February.”

Voting is obligatory for the 12.8 million people eligible to cast a ballot in this country, which covers an area bigger than the United Kingdom and ranges from Amazon jungle and Andean mountains to the Pacific coast and the Galápagos Islands. It will be monitored by a team of 60 international observers from the Organization of American States electoral observation mission. The dominant campaign issues are the economy, corruption and the legacy of the departing president.

Correa leaves power with ratings around 40% – impressively high in a country where no previous leader in a century had lasted more than five years. Most Ecuadorians are far better off than when he took power in 2007, poverty and inequality have gone down and infrastructure, schools and hospitals have been impressively upgraded.

Although Ecuador has been closely allied to Venezuela, Correa avoided the worst excesses of Chávez’s so-called Bolivarian revolution. The government is more pragmatic, the military is less involved in politics, the economy is more diverse and political schisms are less violent.

But 10 years in power and a downturn in global oil prices have taken their toll.

Ecuador’s economy is in recession and many voters are weary of authoritarian leadership. Indigenous groups and environmentalists accuse the government of putting Chinese oil and mining interests above local people and protected areas in the Yasuni national park and among the Shuar territories near the southern border with Peru. The middle class complain of high taxes, excessive bureaucracy, clampdowns on NGOs and attacks on the media.

In the final weeks of the campaign, the biggest criticism is of corruption, particularly relating to Vice-President Jorge Glas – a Correa loyalist who is accused of organising bribes and kickbacks through the state-run oil company Petroecuador. As Glas is Moreno’s running mate, many Ecuadorians fear he will continue the shadier side of government business if the ruling party win again.

Mariá Fernanda Espinosa, Ecuador’s UN representative and a close adviser to Moreno, said the focus on Glas aimed to distract voters from the government’s achievements. “The opposition attack our vice-president because Lenín is so hard to criticise. But they have provided no proof of corruption. It has been a very dirty campaign.”

She believes Moreno will convince voters that change can come even through a vote for the same party as the departing president.

“There is a cycle. At the start we needed a leader with a strong hand and a loud voice because we rebuilt from scratch. Now we are in harvest season, we need someone different, someone with grey hair.”

Lasso says Moreno would be a “puppet” of Correa, who plans to move to Belgium after the handover of power in May and has hinted that he may return to run again at the next election, after promising he would not stand this time in order to pass a constitutional amendment on re-election.

But analysts say there is more likely to be a schism between the two. Fernando Balseca, a newspaper columnist and professor at Andina University, sees parallels with Colombia, where Juan Manuel Santos split with his former mentor Álvaro Uribe after becoming president. This could be precipitated by a fiscal crunch, which looms soon after the election.

“The new government will have big problems,” says Juan Ponce, director of the Latin American Faculty of Social Science in Quito. He sees the two candidates as representatives of different potential bailouts: Moreno, who is likely to continue to rely on Chinese loans, and Lasso, who is more inclined to seek help from the IMF.

With commodity prices low and congress likely to be fractured (137 seats in the country’s unicameral legislature are also up for grabs on 19 February, as well as five representatives to the Andean Congress), Quito, which is flanked by the huge Cotopaxi volcano, could soon see fresh rumblings of discontent after 10 years of unusual stability.

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