Ecuadorians Vote for Systemic Change

Ecuadorians went to the polls on Oct. 15 to vote in the first round of the presidential elections. The results were surprising, if not suspicious, when the supreme electoral tribunal declared Alvaro Noboa, a banana magnate and the richest man in the country, the victor. The widely popular Rafael Correa, polling far ahead of the other candidates just days before, came in second with merely 22.84 percent. León Roldos, who was predicted to come in second against Rafael Correa according to several polls, earned a mere 12-13 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Gilmar Gutierrez, the brother of ex-president Lucio Gutierrez–who was ousted by popular protests in 2004, just half-way through his presidency–jumped from being virtually off the map according to the polls to thrid place with approximately 15-16 percent of the votes.

In this young democracy, only 27-years-old, the presidency has had a tumultuous history. In the last 15 years, only one elected president has finished out his term. In the last ten years, Ecuador has had eight presidents. All three elected presidents in the last decade (Abdalá Bucaram, Jamil Mahuad, Lucio Gutiérrez) have been ousted by popular uprisings or civil protest in response to unpopular policies, corruption allegations and extra-constitutional acts, such as illegally replacing judges in the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE) and Tribunal Constitucional del Ecuador (TCE). The final contenders, Noboa and Correa, went up against each other on Sunday Nov. 26, in the second round run-off.

Noboa´s campaign focused on his promise to build 300,000 houses a year, which translates to 822 houses per day, or 34 houses per hour. He set up offices around the country where people could sign up for their future homes. In the week before the second round, several boxes filled with thousands of these inscription forms were found in the trash in the city of Manta in the Manabí coastal province. He visited poor towns and neighborhoods with cash handouts of up to $500, coupons for chickens after his victory, bags of flour, wheelchairs and computers. He broke campaign spending rules which he exceeded by at least $1,000,000. Noboa declared he would immediately sign the controversial Free Trade Agreement with the United States upon taking office. He declared himself to be "sent from God" and often got down on his knees to pray at rallies, as he did before voting on Sunday.

In virtually direct opposition, Correa, an economist with a Ph.D., educated in Europe and the United States, and ex-Minister of Economy under outgoing president Alfredo Palacio, ran against the Free Trade Agreement, and against corruption. Correa’s platform promotes regional cooperation, and retaking control of the nation’s oil wealth. He pledges not to renew the contract for the United States military base in Manta. He has declared that the FARC are not a terrorist group, and that under his rule Ecuador will not help the United States in their controversial drug-eradication program Plan Colombia. He is friendly with Chavez, and is carelessly and inaccurately referred to as an aspiring "communist dictator" by some English-language press, who echo Wall Street fears that if elected Correa might impose a moratorium on external debt payment. In the end, contempt for Correa from the international press as well as Ecuador’s elite stems from his vocal and radical anti-neoliberal, anti-party politics in a country that has been subordinated by external interests and ravished by corrupt parties for decades.

The first round vote was followed by allegations of corruption, irregularities, and fraud by voters, human rights and civil society organizations, and Correa´s Alianza País movement. Before the first round, Rafael Bielsa, the head of the mission of the Organization of American States´ (OAS) international election observer team, made public statements criticizing Correa´s politics, putting his impartiality in question. Bielsa declared that Correa`s political program was unrealistic due to fervent opposition from León Febres Cordero, former president of Ecuador, and one of the principal political actors in Ecuadorian politics. The Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE, Supreme Electoral Council) forged a required signature at the last minute to contract the private Brazilian firm E-Vote to carry out the quick-count. E-Vote is the same company hired for the quick-count in the contested Mexican election, where there were also allegations of fraud.After counting 70 percent of the votes, E-Vote declared their system had collapsed, the TSE annulled their contract, and all but one member of the E-Vote team fled the country. Santiago Murray, the ex-spokesman of E-Vote, was detained. Three days later, the TSE proclaimed Alvaro Noboa (26.83 percent) and Rafael Correa (22.84 percent) as the official final candidates for the second round. Subsequently, Santiago Murray confessed to having a personal relationship with Rafael Bielsa, which Bielsa had publicly denied, as well as having financial interests in E-Vote. Despite virtual silence on the part of OAS in the period between the first and second rounds, Rafael Bielsa was withdrawn from his post as the head of mission for the OAS electoral observers in Ecuador on the day of the second round election.

On Sunday, Nov. 26, the people returned to the polls. The allegations of fraud during the first round resulted in an increased presence of observers and calls from Correa for citizens to follow the military trucks transporting the votes to ensure their safe arrival at the regional Electoral Councils. Significant mobilization in the weeks preceding and on the day of the final vote added substantial informal observers to the election. As soon as the polls opened, all quick counts carried out by the NGO Participación Ciudadana, as well as those published by the media, registered Correa with a significant lead. The final quick counts gave Correa between 56.4 – 57.99 percent and Noboa between 42.01-43.6 percent. Noboa, however, declared himself the winner, and in a television interview in the afternoon of the day of the election he pointed to opinion polls that he had contracted as recently as one week earlier that showed him winning. Noboa has vowed to demand a recount if the results are not in his favor. Although the official count will not be published by the TSE until Wednesday, Correa held a victory party as the declared President-elect of Ecuador. After having scrutinized 95 percent of the ballots, TSE´s official count registers that Correa is leading with 57.2 percent, followed by Noboa with 42.8 percent, validating the quick-count results from Sunday.

If the TSE officially confirms Correa’s vicotry, who is meeting representatives from the OAS in Quito today, Ecuador would join Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile with leftist-leaning leaders challenging economically and politically hegemonic pro-USA politics in the region.

The political landscape in Ecuador will be difficult to navigate, since Correa’s Alianza País movement, as part of its political program and rejection of corrupt party politics, did not nominate and therefore did not win any seats in congress in the first round. That means that Correa has to begin working immediately on his plans for the promised constitutional assembly to confront a potential deadlock between the executive and legislative branches, as his government counts on the support of only approximately 30 out of 103 elected representatives in congress, the vast majority of whom are controlled by Alvaro Noboa’s PRIAN and Lucio Gutierrez’ PSP parties. However, as evidenced in the elections, Rafael Correa represents the hopes of millions of Ecuadorians that are opting for systemic political reforms. With their continued support he just may be able to challenge even the opposition Congress´ and Ecuadorian elite’s resistance to change.

The la pepa collective was founded in 2002 to publish a bulletin at the Latin American Conference of Sociology Students. Over the last four years la pepa has expanded its membership and mission. La pepa produces an independent political magazine in Quito and participates in social and political organizing and activism in collaboration with other social and youth organizations. La pepa is affiliated with the In the Name of Democracy ( activist research collective.