Ecuador to vote amid economic crisis and widespread discontent

Economy and handling of COVID-19 pandemic figure largely on minds of voters ahead of February 7 presidential polls.

Supporters of Ecuadorean presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso gather before his closing campaign rally in Guayaquil, Ecuador on February 4 [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

Quito, Ecuador – Ecuadorians will head to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president amid widespread discontent over the country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, an economic crisis worsened by COVID-19, and several corruption scandals.

Sixteen presidential candidates will be on the ballot, though most have polled under two percent support and are not expected to be major contenders on voting day.

The race is shaping up to be a fight between ex-banker and longtime presidential hopeful Guillermo Lasso, and Andres Arauz, an economist and former head of the central bank, who are leading in most recent polls with around 25 to 30 percent support.

Lasso, with the right-wing Creating Opportunities (CREO) party, has pledged to create jobs through more international investments and oil extraction projects, while Arauz of the Democratic Center party has promised to return to the socialist policies of former President Rafael Correa.

Third in recent polls, at about 10 to 15 percentage points behind the pair, is Yaku Perez of Pachakutik, the party of the country’s Indigenous movement, who is known for his opposition to mining and support for greater environmental protections.

Experts say it is unlikely that anyone will get the 40 percent support and at least a 10-point lead over their opponents that is needed to win the presidency, which means a runoff will be held on April 11 between the top two candidates.

The elections will be monitored by more than 2,500 local and 225 international observers, including the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations.

Voters will also elect lawmakers to fill 137 seats in the National Assembly.

Whoever wins will need to address several pressing challenges, including widespread public discontent; more than 89 percent of Ecuadorians say the country is on the wrong track, according to a December poll by the Cedatos firm.

“Corruption has been permanent, and scandals have consistently appeared in the media,” said Decio Machado, a political analyst based in Quito, the capital. “People have a lot of distrust in politics today.”

Ecuadorean presidential candidate Yaku Perez rides his bike during his closing campaign rally in Cuenca, Ecuador, on February 4 [Fernanda Garcia/Reuters]

‘Mixed feelings’

Current President Lenin Moreno, who is not up for re-election, will end his single term in office drastically unpopular. His approval rating has long been hovering around seven percent, down from 77 percent in his first months in office.

Moreno was elected in 2017 as the successor to Correa, who increased public spending, cut ties with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and endorsed regional integration with other socialist countries in Latin America.

But shortly after he was elected, Moreno changed course and pursued more business-friendly policies, such as cutting taxes for international mining investors and securing loans from the IMF and World Bank to fund the country’s foreign debt and fiscal deficit.

Correa Reuters
Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa is a polarising figure today [File: Francois Lenoir/Reuters]

His popularity plummeted in October of 2019 after he tried to pass IMF austerity measures that included cutting public funding and eliminating fuel subsidies that many families depend on. His effort sparked 11 days of violent protests across the country.

Dayana Leon, a political communications consultant based in Quito, said those protests polarised Ecuador, as a large part of the population did not support those demonstrating.

Leon told Al Jazeera the protests, coupled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent corruption scandals and high unemployment, mean many Ecuadorians will “have mixed feelings when voting” – unsure of whether to vote for their preferred candidate or to vote strategically to prevent an undesired outcome.

COVID-19, economic woes

The country has been badly hit by the coronavirus, with hospitals at maximum capacity in Quito and the coastal city of Guayaquil, where healthcare and mortuary services collapsed in April.

Ecuador has reported more than 10,000 coronavirus-related deaths, according to government figures, but experts warn the actual number is likely much higher due to Ecuador’s low rates of testing for COVID-19. It has also recorded more than 251,000 infections.

Corruption scandals have also erupted during the pandemic, as at least nine public hospitals are being investigated for embezzlement.

A healthcare worker receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the military hospital FFAA, in Quito [Johanna Alarcon/Reuters]

A network of public officials was recently found selling disability cards – which provide benefits to people with physical disabilities – for inflated prices or using them to import goods with tax exemptions, while Health Minister Juan Carlos Zevallos is also under scrutiny for giving one of Ecuador’s few COVID-19 vaccine doses to his mother.

Meanwhile, unemployment hit 6.6 percent in September, almost double what it was in December 2019, while poverty levels have increased from 43 to 48.5 percent, according to UNICEF Ecuador. The group also estimates that six out of every 10 households with children are now in extreme poverty without access to education, healthcare, food, jobs or social security.

“With the impact of the pandemic, the situation has worsened notably,” said the analyst, Machado. “The political debate is centred around the economy.”

‘Correismo vs anti-Correismo’

The top presidential candidates have vowed to tackle the economic crisis facing many families.

Arauz, 35, who was director of Ecuador’s central bank under Correa, has promised to bring back economic stability by reimplementing the former president’s socialist policies.

But Correa is a polarising figure in Ecuador.

His supporters remember him for decreasing poverty and increasing spending in public infrastructure during a commodities boom, but his administration was accused of corruption – and Correa himself was charged with violating campaign finance laws, which he continues to fight from his home in Belgium.

“The main electoral debate is between Correismo and anti-Correismo,” said Machado.

Both have strong support across the country, but the current government has been “the best validator of Correa’s politics”, he said. “Many people have this feeling that the past was better; there were more jobs, better purchasing power, the economic crisis was managed in a better way.”

Political platforms

Arauz’s proposals include increasing taxes on transnational companies, reinstating public spending, strengthening the Central Bank, and refusing to comply with IMF austerity measures. He also promised to give $1,000 to one million Ecuadorian families who have suffered during the pandemic to stimulate the local economy.

For his part, Lasso, 65, has promised to crack down on corruption – a nod to Correa and the current Moreno government – and proposed an international anti-corruption commission. This is his third time running for president, including in 2017 when he lost by a narrow margin to Moreno.

Lasso has tried to position himself as distinct from the last two governments, blaming the country’s current economic crisis on the last 14 years of bad governance, said Machado.

Presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso rides on a pick-up truck during a campaign caravan, in Guayaquil, Ecuador [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

In his current campaign, Lasso has promised to cut taxes and create one million jobs by attracting international investment, particularly in oil and mining. He also said he supports flexible work contracts, where wages and hours can be negotiated, to allow employers to hire more workers.

Perez, 51, of Pachakutik, positions himself as part of the “Ecological Left” and is a firm critic of both established right-wing politicians and Correismo. He is also a strong advocate of transitioning into a post-extractive economy and renegotiating the country’s external debt with China and the IMF.

Critics say it is unclear how he will create jobs or a stable national economy without the extractive sector, which accounts for almost nine percent of Ecuador’s GDP.

Carlos Mazabanda, Ecuador field coordinator for environmental group Amazon Watch, said Perez’s anti-mining activism has “played an important role” in defending the environment, but there is concern about whether he could maintain that stance in office in the face of a powerful mining lobby.

But Perez is supported by the many in the Indigenous community, which numbers some 1.1 million people, and environmentalists as he is the only candidate to speak at length about environmental issues and the need to address climate change.

Ecuadorean presidential candidate Andres Arauz gestures to supporters during his closing campaign rally in Quito on February 4 [Johanna Alarcon/Reuters]

Voting mandatory

Beyond that, Leon said climate change and human rights were “completely absent” from debates leading up to the vote, with some candidates even showing “total ignorance of international human rights agreements”.

Most candidates said women’s rights were important, but a discussion on reproductive rights – which have come under increasing attention after Argentina legalised abortion in December – was also noticeably missing from the campaign.

A plan to address regional migration, as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have sought refuge in Ecuador, also remains unclear, as most presidential candidates only spoke about the issue through a public security lens.

The Cotopaxi volcano is seen near Quito, the capital of Ecuador [File: Guillermo Granja/Reuters]

Still, more than 13 million people are registered to vote – and voting is mandatory in Ecuador, with anyone who does not turn in a ballot facing a fine of 10 percent of the minimum monthly wage ($40).

People must vote in person, following public health guidelines such as wearing a mask, to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus.

During the 2017 elections, the abstention rate reached 17 percent and Machado said if voting was not mandatory, the abstention rate this year would be “extremely high” this time around, as well. “There is a lot of disbelief felt towards the proposals of politicians in general,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera