After Ecuadoreans voted favorably in the Feb. 4 seven-question popular referendum, the victory of the “yes” side has been claimed by many, putting Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno in a difficult situation.
The focus has largey been on the fact that the people of Ecuador voted to limit re-election, preventing former president Rafael Correa from running again, a victory that banker and politician Guillermo Lasso has claimed for himself and for the “citizens in the streets since 2014.”
Ecuador’s president, who called for the referendum, celebrated the overwhelming victory of the “yes” vote, but governing could be difficult now that his party has split, decimating his support in the legislative, and that opposition parties have begun demanding that more of their own agenda translates into government policies.
The “yes” victory in the referendum is undeniable. In two of the seven questions over 70 percent voted “yes”; the remaining five questions were supported by over 60 percent of voters.
Nevertheless, some “no” supporters have also claimed victory, arguing the over 35 percent they obtainted in the questions on reelection limits, the Council for Citizen Participation, and the capital gains tax on property situate Correa’s new Citizen's Revolution Movement as the top, single political force in the country.
Just as the vote to eliminate statute of limitations for sexual crimes against children is not a vote for Moreno himself, votes against restructuring the fifth power of the state - the Council for Citizen Participation - should not necessarily be interpreted as a vote for Correa himself, as voters showed some capacity of voting thematically, evaluating each question rather than voting for political figures.
That being said, Correa’s involvement in the campaign against the referendum, particularly his work on the three questions mentioned above, attests to the fact that, much to the dismay of many political actors, Correa and his Citizen’s Revolution movement has retained considerable political support, which will allow it to continue to play a role in Ecuadorean politics.
After the referendum, political actors will have to create a discourse of their own, one that is not a byproduct of support or opposition to Correa and his legacy. The polarizing nature of the Correa/ anti-Correa debate has its limits within Ecuador’s electorate. For good reason, Moreno stressed a change of style in his presidential campaign.
However, this will be a difficult task as many will try to convince Moreno to select staunch anti-Correa pre-candidates for the reformed Council for Citizen Participation.
Moreover, recognizing Moreno’s initial ideological shift is crucial in gaining clarity on the post-referendum political scenario and to identify possible effects on a progressive agenda promised by the Ecuadorean president.
In terms of the correlation of forces, much has changed since Moreno was sworn as president on May 24, 2017, and was elected together with 74 PAIS Alliance legislators, obtaining a majority bloc in the country's legislative branch.
After 30 of them disaffiliated to form a new political movement along with Correa, Moreno is left with 44 lawmakers.
Now, in order to legislate PAIS needs to secure at least 24 votes from other parties. A difficult task now that he faces two strong and well-organized sectors of the opposition.
PAIS’ ultimate break-up, accelerated by the popular consultation, has numerous antecedents.
First, Moreno met with the banking sector and gave them a monopoly over e-money, excluding Ecuador’s Central Bank, a move opposed by many within his party. He then met with representatives of Ecuador’s traditional mainstream media outlets later announcing a future referendum to annul Ecuador’s Communication Law; he also appointed a pro-free trade businessman as head of the foreign trade ministry and characterized Correa’s government, in which he participated as vice president twice, as generally corrupt.
These decisions garnered Moreno’s government a temporary truce with powerful political and economic actors, including the opposition and mainstream media.
Then came the president’s call for the referendum and Moreno lost his party’s simple majority in the National Assembly.
In spite of the right’s support for Moreno’s referendum, as soon as the results were announced demands and warnings were issued by Ecuador’s most prominent conservative economic and political actors.
“Correa is part of the past,” Lasso said during his 'victory' speech. “The time for questions is over and the time for Moreno to answer has begun.”
With that, Lasso issued an extensive list of demands: the annulment of the Communication Law, reversing tax increases, and strengthening trade with the United States.
Lasso is not alone. Ecuador’s business class had long opposed Correa’s government distancing from the United States since 2008, and traditional media and right-wing politicians have lobbied against the communication law since 2013.
Lenin had already announced he will ask the people about the Communication Law through a referendum, and reaching a trade agreement with the United States is something Moreno’s minister of foreign trade has been working on. Within the first six months of Moreno’s government a delegation travelled to the United States to secure this agreement.
Guayaquil’s mayor, Jaime Nebot, leader of the Social Christian Party agrees “we can no longer be playing Socialism.”
Nebot has been accused by torture victims of participating in illegal state action during the late 80s, when he was governor of Guayas. Lasso, through his bank (Banco de Guayaquil), has been linked to profiteering during Ecuador’s financial crisis of the late 1990s. While in opposition during the Correa years, these politicians, along with other controversial figures, are seen as influencing policy now.
While economic reform is the main goal, other areas where a progressive agenda made headway during the past ten years are also coming under fire. Ecuador’s protection of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has been staying in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid detention and possible extradition to the United States, and participation in the Venezuela-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America - which emerged as an alternative to the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas - could be undone, some fear.
Maria Fernanda Espinosa, the current foreign ministry, who was also previously part of Correa’s cabinet, may be able to resist this ideological shift, but the question remains: will Lenin be able to enact these changes now that his party’s political base and legislative support is fractured?
Election results revealed a clear regional divide and a loss of PAIS’ organic support. In the coast, the “no” vote for questions on reelection, the Council and the capital gains tax bucked than the national trend, and in the case of highly-populated Manabi province, the “no” vote won in these three questions.
Meanwhile, the places where the “yes” vote won more resolutely are provinces that have, at least since 2013, voted against PAIS Alliance. Lenin's party will not likely be able to capitalize on the referendum vote for future elections.
The clamor for Moreno to rid his own cabinet of all “Correistas” is loud, and stretches far and wide.
The construction sector recently issued a warning against current Justice minister and long-time member of PAIS, Rosana Alvarado, accusing her and other cabinet members of “reissuing Correa government’s arbitrary practices” after she announced the government is writing the proposal to annul the capital gains tax of property and “working on a new proposal.”
Moreno confirmed this intention, but he will have a hard time passing a law to combat speculation on land after losing half of his bloc.
Even Correa, who had a legislative majority and a virtually unified party, had to temporarily backtrack from his attempt to tax inheritances and capital gains on property after right-wing parties orchestrated street protests on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit.
In the face of all this Moreno publicly claimed that his government “will not make a pact with the right-wing. It is the antithesis of our ideological beliefs.” Nonetheless, a day later, his foreign trade minister announced Ecuador will try to join the Pacific Alliance, a mechanism for multilateral free trade promoted by Latin America’s neoliberal governments since 2011.
Will progressive actors within Moreno’s government and sectors of the indigenous and environmental sectors be able to fend off the push to “straighten Ecuador’s economic path” into neoliberal orthodoxy?
The prospects do not look good.