Just few hours into the tight first round of Ecuador’s presidential race between left-wing candidate Lenin Moreno and his right-wing opponent Guillermo Lasso, the conservative opposition began to promote the unsubstantiated claim that the elections authorities in the country were committing fraud in favor of the ruling party PAIS Alliance and its wheelchair-bound candidate.
The fantastic assertion came despite the fact that 200 election observers were present at polling stations around Ecuador. Lasso and his running mate Andres Paez personally accused Juan Pablo Pozo, the head of the National Electoral Council, of personally overseeing the alleged fraud, predicated on the election officials refusal to declare whether candidates would head to a second round.
"Mr. Pozo is a well-educated and polite gentleman, but he only responds to the interests of his boss," Lasso said referring to outgoing President Rafael Correa.
In various press conferences, Pozo had said that due to the fact that the race was tight, his council would take its time counting votes and resolving “irregularities” before announcing the final official results, a process that could take up to three days after the vote.
But for the banker and former finance minister, those three days were tantamount to a "shameless" attempt by the government and the council to "get their hands" in the election results.
Moreno finished the first round with 39.2 percent of all votes, just short of the required 40 percent and 10-point difference to avoid a runoff, as Lasso fell behind in second place with almost 28.3 percent of the votes.
As soon as the results were released showing that Moreno had won the round but would face a second round contest against Lasso, observer missions began releasing information about the voting, flatly dismissing any suggestion of fraud and hailing the transparency of the process.
“The Mission has not observed evidence of fraud,” Gerardo de Icaza, director for the Department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation at the Organization of American States, told teleSUR Wednesday from Washington D.C., adding that “any allegation of fraud should be supported by evidence,” which Lasso’s campaign has failed to do.
De Icaza further noted that the National Electoral Council (CNE) “has taken measures, some of them recommended by the OAS, to improve the process and make it more reliable and transparent.”
Also following the first round’s results, the electoral mission of the Union of South American Nations, Unasur, rejected the fraud claims with the head of the mission, Alexander Vega, arguing that delay in the release of final results is a normal vote-counting procedure and called for people to be calm and wait for the final results.
Vega also clarified that despite his claims to supporters and media, Lasso did not actually file a protest to electoral authorities.
"No one has claimed fraud," Vega said on Feb. 21 just two days after elections day, adding that it is difficult to believe "that the National Electoral Council would have invited more than 200 observers for a fraud."
He added that the Ecuadorean system is "so transparent that whoever wins can download the transcripts, add the votes and will get the same result."
The election mission of the OAS had also issued a report praising the government and the election authority for the transparency of the process and the steps taken to improve voting.
Leonel Fernandez, the head of 66 election observers from the OAS held a press conference in the capital Quito on Feb. 23 sharing with reporters his mission’s findings. “On election day, OAS observers visited 375 polling stations in 17 provinces of the country,” Fernandez told reporters reading from the report. “Despite some inconveniences during the elections, the mission observed progress in the organization and administration of elections and recognizes the efforts made by officials at the National Electoral Council (CNE) led by its president Juan Pablo Pozo.”
He further hailed the measures adopted to expand the exercise of political rights for all Ecuadoreans “through mechanisms like voting from home and voting in prisons” and “the special assistance for people with disabilities, the elderly, and pregnant.”
The OAS report also shut down any claims of fraud stressing that allegations of already marked ballots were highly isolated incidents and that only three people have come forward regarding such cases.
“Despite social networks echoing this situation, the truth is these were isolated cases and these votes were not counted,” said the former president of the Dominican Republic.
While mounting evidence in fact confirms that the first round of the presidential elections was fraud-free, Lasso and Paez have continued to reiterate their allegations, and have even threatened to overturn the election of PAIS Alliance legislators once in office.
These persistent actions from opposition politicians have raised concerns that they will once again claim fraud in the second round - in spite of lacking evidence - in an effort to rally their supporters
Speaking during a CNE workshop held with representatives from the electoral missions in Quito on March 20, Vega said it was “impossible” to have fraud in the next round of the vote on April 2, calling the opposition’s warnings about a possible fraud in the next round “reckless” and urging all political actors to be calm and responsible.
While fraud is out of the question in the upcoming vote, observers say that as in the first round irregularities are expected to occur.
In the first round the ruling party PAIS Alliance had submitted complaints to the election authorities regarding such incidents, which observers say are common part of any election and fundamentally different than fraud.
De Icaza defined irregularities as “mistakes” or “Isolated electoral offences, such as vote buying” adding that such incidents occur in every electoral process. “These are normally isolated and do not have the scope and width to alter the results of an election.”
When such incidents take place and are detected by observers at poll stations “we report any irregularities we observe and we hand any complaints we receive to the competent electoral authorities.”
While irregularities are isolated events, fraud is “the systematic intention to alter results and the will of the people,” the OAS election expert argued.
When asked about when electoral missions begin to worry about irregularities he said when they “become generalized and there is a clear and systematic intention to alter the results of the election we can talk of fraud.”
Such a situation could easily be discovered in the Ecuadorian elections because it “is being very closely observed by political parties, the media, civil society organizations and national and international observers,” he concluded.