HAS THE PINK TIDE TURNED?

Ecuador 2017 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: SUNDAY’S ECUADOR ELECTIONS

A contracting economy, the collapse in oil revenues, and a string of corruption scandals now overshadow President Correa's achievements over the past decade. When Ecuadorian voters go to the polls on Sunday, will they remember eight years of good times or the last two of bad? Like a marriage on the rocks, much depends on rapidly fading memories and semi-jaded hopes.










Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (L) and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa pose at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, January 30, 2017.

Of the six South American leaders who made up the Marea Rosa (“Pink Tide") that swept across Latin America in the first decade of the century, only three are left standing: Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Bolivia's Evo Morales, and Chile's Michelle Bachelet.

In Brazil, Dilma Roussef was impeached on corruption charges in 2016 while her chief patron, former president Lula da Silva, is barely kept out of prison by a legal thread. In Argentina, Nestor Kirchner died prematurely from cardiac arrest before his wife and successor, Christina de Kirchner, was ignominiously chucked from office by a right-wing billionaire in 2016.

Further south in Paraguay, former left-wing priest and Catholic socialist Fernando Lugo was ousted by a parliamentary coup in 2012. In the regional vanguard of Venezuela, the premature death of Hugo Chavez in 2013 has led to the increasingly erratic and autocratic rule of his successor, Nicolas Maduro. And in Cuba, Fidel finally crossed the Jordan in November at the age of 90. Will death be the end of them all?

On Sunday February 19, Ecuadorians will decide who will replace Rafael Correa, arguably the last of the great early-21st century Latin American populists. During his decade-long tenure (2007-2017), the US-trained economist vastly improved infrastructure, nearly halved the country's poverty rate from 45% to 25%, reduced unemployment to 4.8%, and saw the economy grow by 4% per year. In addition to Quito's shiny new airport, a sleek network of new roads leads to the mountainous capital from the jungle and the coast, while dozens of new bridges connect formerly inaccessible regions.

The Man, the Myth, the Metal

Born into a working-class neighborhood in the country's largest city of Guayaquil on the Pacific coast, Correa's rise to power was nearly seamless: from need-based scholarships to attend elite Catholic institutes as an adolescent to a high-ranking post in the Ministry of Culture and Education by the age of 30 that was followed by a PhD at the University of Illinois, he scarcely missed a beat.

Yet Correa's biography also hints at a darker strain of Latin American life. As a child, his father was imprisoned for years for attempting to smuggle drugs into the US. As Correa once told a reporter, “These people are not criminals. They are single mothers or unemployed people who are desperate to feed their families." Eager to pay back a legal and socio-economic inheritance of disenfranchisement, Correa served on a Catholic mission out of college where he taught mathematics and learned Quechua, the language spoken by most of the country's indigenous inhabitants.

On paper, Correa's legacy rests largely upon sound socio-economic achievements at home and brazen anti-Americanism, pan-Leftism, or simply anti-neoliberalism abroad. Toward that end, he was on chummy terms with Chavez and Morales; together, the three Andean leaders formed the nucleus of what would later be known as the New Left or the Pink Tide. Throw an ageing Castro in the mix and you've a veritable Fuchsia Reformation.

Vastly increased social and infrastructure spending, a successfully defended default on USD3 billion worth of international bonds, and utter derision for the World Bank and IMF, Correa's miracle was visible, bold, and brazen. It was also funded by black gold and Chinese credit. Take either out of the equation and the foundation upon which Correa's increasingly centralized state and public apparatus has been built starts to crumble—which is precisely what happened in 2014 when oil fell from USD112/barrel that June to USD24/barrel in February 2016.

Impidiendo el Imperio

Without severing ties with the US, Correa strained them as much as any charismatic leader of a small, indigenous, mountain nation could. In 2011 he expelled the US ambassador Heather Hodges when a report of hers surfaced in Wikileaks suggesting that Correa had knowledge of high-level corruption in the police.

As if to seek forgiveness from a different deity, he then granted Julian Assange asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London a year later (the latter's been pacing a windowless first-floor room in Knightsbridge ever since). In April 2014, he expelled all 20 Department of Defense employees from the US embassy in Quito. Nor were these quips at Washington unprecedented: upon taking office in 2007, he purged all military officers whose ties to the US were deemed too close to comfort and discontinued all of USAID's activities in 2012.

The trick to closing the gap wrought by the departure of US and, by extension, World Bank and IMF money and savoir-faire was Chinese credit facilitated by forward oil sales. While it renewed a credit line worth USD1.5 billion from the China Development Bank in the spring of 2014, this wasn't enough to plug the hole left from access to global money markets. Now digging itself into something of a hole, the government reversed track on previously stringent oil and mining regulations to the benefit of Chinese exploration in many environmentally sensitive parts of the country.

Before long, indigenous groups and environmentalists were accusing Correa of selling Ecuador out to Beijing and putting protected areas at risk, such as the Yasuni national park and indigenous Shuar communities near the country's border with Peru. After being the first country in the world to enshrine the rights of nature into its constitution in 2008, Correa now seemed to be backtracking with the price of oil at historic lows.

In June 2015, the body of an indigenous leader opposed to a USD1.4 billion Chinese-backed gold and copper mine, El Mirador, was found in an unmarked grave. Many conservationists are set against him, the middle class complains of high taxes and excessive bureaucracy, while opponents of every socio-economic stripe bemoan the excessive centralization that has accrued in the past ten years.

Leaving office with a 40% approval rating, Correa's current popularity is but a fraction of what it was only 2-3 years ago. But it is still impressive by historic standards. The only Ecuadorian president to last more than five years in office in a century, Correa's rule is a political bright spot in a country that is incredibly rich in natural resources but normally consumed by corruption, scandal, overreach, and egregious levels of socio-economic and racial inequality.

That he's leaving with even 40% approval in a prolonged period of profoundly low oil prices is a testament to his achievements—and a nod to his possible return in 2021. Though the constitution was amended in 2015 to extend term limits, this will not go into effect until May 2017, after Correa will have stepped down from his current, third term. Which raises the critical question: who will take his place, and to what extent will their policies diverge from those of the past ten years?

The Doyen or the Doghouse

As in any changing of the guard, Sunday's vote is a referendum on Correa. It will also serve as a testing ground for his legacy: of the two things that defined his presidency—eight years of economic bonanza and oil-fueled development (2007-14) and two years of scandal and economic crisis (2014-16)—which looms more heavily in voters' minds? Like a shortened morning commute, infrastructural gains soon weave themselves into the fabric of one's life. Are voters in the mood to reward the incumbent party, Alianza País, for its early if long-standing achievements? Or punish it for more recent scandals and an over-reliance on oil?

While polling is notoriously faulty, the candidate from the ruling Alianza País party, Lenín Moreno, is still thought to be the favorite. A former vice president (2007-13), he is currently the UN Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility. Though a leftist by upbringing (see: his first name), Moreno is widely known for his rich sense of humor and openness. Paralyzed during a robbery in the 1990s, he would also be the first paraplegic in history to become the head of any state should he win on Sunday.

Though the leading candidate from an increasingly unpopular and heavy-handed ruling party, Moreno has two major advantages when it comes to his potential 'incumbent' status. The first is the widespread support he'll enjoy from the large machinery of state and governing apparatus that has come to dominate much of the country in the past decade, given that the bureaucracy remains overwhelmingly pro-Correa.

The second is his personal distance from the less popular developments that have occurred in the past two years: absent was he for the collapse of oil prices, the opening of Chinese concessions, the Odebrecht and Petroecuador scandals, the destruction of various cloud forests, even the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in April 2016 that killed nearly 700 people and displaced another 240,000.

His biggest liability is not so much his ties to the ruling party as much as his running mate, current Vice President Jorge Glas, a political marriage chosen by the party. Glas has been accused of organizing kickbacks through the state-run oil company Petroecuador and is under investigation for accepting bribes from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction magnate also facing corruption charges in Venezuela, Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Panama, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Angola, Mexico, and Brazil.

How Moreno might distance himself from a hugely unpopular running mate in the next three days remains to be seen.

Thought to be in second place is Guillermo Lasso, a former banker who heads the center-right Movimiento CREO (“Creating Opportunities") party and was the runner-up against Correa in 2013, with 22.7% of the vote. The chief shareholder in Banco de Guayaquil, one of the country's largest, he promises the abolition of tax and communications legislation within his first 30 days of power as part of a broader attempt to dismantle many of Correa's 'achievements' (depending on whom you ask) as quickly as possible. A Schumpeterian by temperament, Lasso is less clear about what he will replace them with—apart from a strong insistence that the private sector will pull through. He has also promised to discontinue Julian Assange's asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Lasso's running mate is Andreas Paez, a lawyer and congressman who was a former heavyweight in the Democratic Left (ID) party, whose own candidate, Paco Moncayo, a retired general and former mayor of Quito, is currently polling in fourth.

Nipping at the heels of Lasso is Cynthia Viteri, the candidate of the right-wing Social Christian Party, barely in third. Promising to abolish taxes, build social housing, and reinforce (decentralize) the country's democratic institutions, the conservative former congresswoman was hand-picked to lead her party's ticket by Jaime Nebot, the mayor of the country's largest city, Guayaquil. Many of her fiscal proposals mirror those of Mauricio Macri, Argentina's recently elected right-wing president.

A Moment of Truth, in Pink or Purple?

Within the current climate of South American politics, the situation is not abnormal: a bureaucratic, heavy-handed, populist, leftist incumbent with real social gains behind it but now reeling from a plunge in commodities prices, the creeping tick of corruption, and a gradual corrosion of confidence that almost inevitably accompanies long stints in power: the scenario could easily describe Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela to a tee. Can Ecuador's pinkists buck the trend?

Two fundamental realities will dictate Sunday's outcome. The first is that people want blood. The current mood on the street and social media is one of rage: for every verified corruption scandal (Panama Papers, Odebrecht, Petroecuador), another three conspiracy theories make the rounds. In the past few weeks alone, accusations of the wildest nature have been flung at all sides, and many believe the government has been far too lenient in dealing with graft and corruption. That Ecuador's economy contracted by 2.3% in 2016 and is expected to do so by a further 2.7% in 2017 only makes matters worse. Come Sunday, someone must pay.

Nonetheless, the opposition knows the government's position is still strong. Under Ecuadorian law, any candidate winning at least 40% of the first-round vote and scoring 10% more than the runner-up foregoes a second round and automatically wins the election. Thus the opposition is waiting until Saturday February 18 to see who's polling second and will throw all their weight behind them, regardless of whether that's Lasso or Viteri.

Though titillating, blindly casting one's vote as a poisonous dart of protest does not bode well for Ecuadorian democracy. It reduces the accountability of both elector and elected, and reinforces a sense of perennial helplessness if and when said protest candidate should fail to live up to expectations. The alternative, however, of holding one's nose and hoping for the best, is no longer the rock on which to build one's politics.

Ecuador's major political parties have put forth three uninspiring platforms; a decade of seamless, stable governance may soon revert to the extreme anomaly it once was.