Ecuador: Correa Plays His Cards Right

On September 30th Ecuador goes to the polls to vote for an assembly that will re-write the constitution. A lot of reputations are riding on the outcome, not least that of Ecuador’s head of state. President Rafael Correa considers the constitutional assembly a vital step in his administration and has stated his intention to step down if his party, “Movimiento País”, cannot control the new 130 seat body. At first sight it seems that Correa is taking a mighty gamble. A recent poll suggests that Movimiento País will gain just 40 seats in the 130 seat assembly (1). However, we believe that the political risk to Correa is minimal and he will in fact get the result he wants.  

In our view, there are several reasons why the president and his newly formed party will almost certainly win through. Firstly, Correa’s track record in “beat the pollster” is impressive. In 2006’s presidential runoff election against banana magnate Alvaro Ochoa, detailed opinion polls pointed to a neck-and-neck race right up to the November 26th polling day. In fact, Correa won with a comfortable 56%. Then on April 15th this year, Ecuador again voted on whether the constitutional assembly elections should go ahead in a simple “yes/no” referendum. Again, opinion polls said the result would be close. This time, a veritable landslide 81% voted in Correa’s favour. Why pollsters seem to get him wrong is debatable. Some say that the polling companies are somewhat biased towards the traditional powers that Correa is battling against. Others note they don’t seem to survey very deeply in rural areas and low income neighbourhoods. But for whatever reason, Correa has so far outperformed expectations and it would be no surprise to see the same phenomenon this time around.  

The next reason to back success for Movimiento País lies with Correa himself. Although his honeymoon period approval ratings of up to 76% have ostensibly slipped to the mid 50s, his main policy thrusts of social equality and the rooting out of corruption are still extremely popular. His direct, even confrontational style and left-leaning social policies have made him enemies in Ecuadorian society ranks, but the wider population sees him as strong, honest and a refreshing change. Correa, via his party, has sent out a clear message to the electorate. With control of the assembly, Correa will dissolve Ecuador’s single house congress and send what he calls that “sewer of corruption” packing. This is the policy statement that served him well in the votes of the last 12 months and we firmly believe that this “anti-fatcat” policy still enjoys overwhelming popular support. In short, it’s a winning play.  

Dynamics of the September 30th vote also favor the government. Up and down Ecuador, there are over 3000 candidates running for a mere 130 assembly seats. As well as organized political parties and established politicians, this number includes local TV celebrities, indigenous leaders and suchlike. The 3000-plus candidates are running on a mind boggling total of 486 different tickets (typically known as “lists” in LatAm electoral systems), and with every party comes a different set of proposals that have turned the election into a confusing morass of ideas. This, we believe, will play into the hands of Correa. When presented with a long list of candidates and parties, many Ecuadorians will plump for a party or symbol they know. Correa has been prominent on the hustings and in all Movimiento País media propaganda, and will gather favour from many who are still not sure about what the vote is all about. Surveys (2) suggest that up to 80% of voters still undecided on who to support and 70% of voters say they will opt for a single “list” when voting (presumably voting for a single party and not for different personalities from different tickets). And perhaps at this point it is worth mentioning that the European Union is sending 130 official observers to ensure the free and fair vote that everyone expects.  

Meanwhile, Movimiento Pais has rapidly evolved into a fully-fledged political machine. It has a clear identity and straightforward messages that go down well with amongst a populace that are not the most politically sophisticated. His opposition are often lacking in these respects. An example of this was a recent anecdote from political consultant Jaime Durán Barba (an influential hired gun political advisor for aspiring South American politicians, a sort of southern hemisphere version of James Carville). In a recent interview, he spoke of being invited to a policy meeting for a newly formed party hoping for seats in the assembly. When he asked on what issues they were seeking election, he was told that they weren’t not sure yet and in fact they’d asked him along to help decide what to offer people. Durán likened them to a boy scouts meeting.  

Finally, Correa’s “all or nothing” gamble on control of the assembly isn’t quite as risky as it first seems. Although he hasn’t stated it out loud, he has been careful in how he words his resignation threats and as long as he is able to control the new assembly via alliances with other assembly members and parties he will surely stay on as president. Even if Movimiento País falls short of the 66 seats needed for outright control, they are a lock for the biggest block of seats in the new assembly and will be able to form alliances with other members and parties to gain a controlling majority. We would expect factions such as indigenous groups and other left wing political parties to join forces with Correa. 

When all is said and done, we expect President Correa to achieve his aims and put his chances of a direct party majority in the assembly at around 50/50. However, we would be extremely surprised if he cannot do the deals needed for an alliance that will take firm grip on the constitutional assembly. After a prolonged period of political instability that has seen 7 presidents come and go in the space of just 10 years, Correa has been smart in the way he has consolidated his mandate from the population and insulated himself against his sworn enemies inside the establishment. Once he has control of the constitutional assembly, he will have the institutional stability that will add momentum to his push for a more socially equitable Ecuador.  

(1)   http://www.milenio.com/index.php/2007/09/06/117571/ (2)   http://www.elcomercio.com/noticiaEC.asp?id_noticia=135149&id_seccion=3