Ecuador’s Referendum Reveals a Fragmented Country

On May 7, Ecuadorians voted in a referendum on ten questions ranging through constitution, judicial, political, and social issues. In the run-up to the vote many observers cast the election as a plebiscite on president Rafael Correa’s four years in office, a test of his popularity, and on his prospects of winning reelection in 2013, rather than a contest over any specific issue that the referendum raised. More than anything, however, the referendum revealed the deeply fragmented nature of the country.

On May 7, Ecuadorians voted in a referendum on ten questions ranging through constitution, judicial, political, and social issues. In the run-up to the vote many observers cast the election as a plebiscite on president Rafael Correa’s four years in office, a test of his popularity, and on his prospects of winning reelection in 2013, rather than a contest over any specific issue that the referendum raised. More than anything, however, the referendum revealed the deeply fragmented nature of the country.

Exit polls initially indicated that Rafael Correa had walked away with his sixth sequential electoral victory since initially winning the presidency in 2006. Social movement activists and leftist dissidents who had long since broken with Correa, however, quickly insisted that the exit polling firms had distorted the data to create an impression of Correa’s invincibility. The race was much closer than some believed, they contended, and the referendum had in reality lost in some eastern Amazonian provinces.

Even though Correa declared triumph after the close of the polls, the initial electoral returns indicated a slim margin of victory and perhaps even a rejection of two of the ten questions in the referendum. The president accused electoral officials of collaborating with opposition figures and intentionally counting provinces where he had the least amount of support first in order to create an atmosphere of doubt and chaos. Nevertheless, almost a week later official returns still painted the same picture. In the end, it appeared that all ten questions would be approved, but with less than a 50 percent vote in favor of each one.

For Correa, a clear and strong political rationale fueled his decision to hold the referendum. Following a surge of popularity in the aftermath of a failed September 30, 2010 police uprising that threatened his political position, a win in the referendum would allow Correa to reaffirm his legitimacy and hold on power. Rather than entrenching Correa’s grasp on power, however, the referendum revealed a deeply fragmented country that was split along race, class, and regional lines.

The Questions

On January 15, 2011, the fourth anniversary of Correa’s initial inauguration to office, the president formally proposed a referendum designed to implement reforms to deepen his “citizen’s revolution.” In particular, he was determined to remove corrupt and inefficient judges from their positions, and to give the police more power to fight crime. Opponents feared that Correa was using rising crime rates as a cover to conduct a power grab, including an attempt to stack the courts with his allies.

The referendum began as a single issue of reforming the penal code to extend the period of pre-trial detention for criminals in order to address issues of public security. It then expanded out to a total of ten issues. The first five questions would amend the new 2008 constitution, and the remaining five touched on issues of wide ranging social, political, and economic significance. Each question came with a lengthy appendix describing its import and how it would be implemented, though it is doubtful that many voters bothered to read or study these details.

The key questions in the referendum was one that would reform a judicial system that Correa saw as corrupt and inefficient, as well as allow for an expansion of the president’s executive power. Passage of the first two questions would cancel the constitutional limit on the length of preventive detention, with a goal of accelerating the pace of criminal cases in the judicial system.

The third question would limit the overlap between media companies and the banking sector, in particular restricting private banks from owning other companies and forbidding private media companies from participating in other economic ventures in order to prevent conflicts of interest. This question was important because the press remained firmly in the hands of the traditional oligarchy and is solidly opposed to the current government. In a sense, the press had replaced political parties as a vehicle for an expression of the large economic interests.

The fourth would completely overhaul what many see as a corrupt, inefficient, and ineffective judicial system. The fifth question would expand the council of the judiciary that appoints judges to include representatives from other branches of government. Opponents argued that these measures would make it possible for the president to limit the independence of the courts, essentially constituting a power grab. Correa, on the other hand, claimed that such steps were necessary to curtail corruption, overcome paralysis in the judicial system, and make the judiciary more efficient.

A second set of five questions touched on a broad set of non-constitutional issues. The sixth question would criminalize the illegal acquisition of wealth in the private realm, something that was already classified as a crime in the public sector.

The seventh question would ban casinos and gambling, and the eighth would outlaw the mistreatment or killing of animals for entertainment. This question would be decided on a local level, and of the ten questions faced the strongest challenge, particularly in areas such as Quito with strong bullfighting and cockfighting traditions.

The ninth question would create a regulatory council to monitor violent, explicitly sexual, or discriminatory content in both the broadcast and print media. Many opponents interpreted this measure as an attempt to limit the freedom of the media in order to muzzle dissent, and was one of the most controversial questions on the referendum.

The final question required employers to register their employees in the Social Security Institute. This was the least controversial of the ten proposals, and enjoyed the highest level of popular support.

The Opposition

As the May 7 vote approached, a variety of campaigns both for and against the referendum moved into high gear. While the government ran a strong campaign in favor of the referendum, the opposition was very fragmented. Although the oligarchy opposed any move that Correa made, some of the most serious opposition came from his former allies who had grown disillusioned with the growing authoritarianism of his government. Broadly the opposition to the referendum fell into four groupings, each to a certain extent representing a degree of knee-jerk reaction against anything that the president might oppose.

First was the traditional conservative and now largely discredited oligarchy that with Correa’s presidency had lost its long 200-year grasp on political power. Although out of government, they continued to have a stranglehold on the media and used this to attack and denounce Correa at any opportunity. Leading this opposition were such figureheads as Guayaquil mayor Jaime Nebot from the conservative Partido Social Cristiano (PSC, Social Christian Party), and billionaire banana magnate Álvaro Noboa, Ecuador’s richest man and perennial losing presidential candidate, of the Partido Renovador Institucional Acción Nacional (PRIAN, National Action Party of Institutional Renewal).

Second were political opponents grouped around Lucio Gutiérrrez of the Partido Sociedad Patriótica (PSP, Patriotic Society Party). A career military officer, Gutiérrrez had initially come into the public’s eye on January 21, 2000 when he joined with Indigenous movements in a coup that removed Jamil Mahuad from power after he implemented drastic neoliberal economic policies of privatization and the dolarization of the economy. Although the coup failed, with the support of his Indigenous allies Gutiérrez won the presidency two years later. In power, however, the former colonel quickly moved right, embraced the same neoliberal polices he had previously denounced, and alienated his social movement base. Nevertheless, Gutiérrez became highly adept at manipulating clientalistic relations, and as a result maintained a strong base of support in central highland Indigenous communities with relatively low levels of political consciousness. Reflecting Ecuador’s deeply entrenched regionalism, Gutiérrez also drew on deep support in his native Amazonian region.

A third group were leftist dissidents who were former Correa allies but had become alienated from his autocratic style of governance. These leftist opponents charged that the concentration of power in Correa’s hands only served to roll back the expansion of direct democracy as embodied in Ecuador’s new progressive 2008 constitution. The most important leader of this wing was economist Alberto Acosta, a former close ally of Correa who initially served as his minister of mines and then as president of the 2008 constituent assembly.

Following Acosta, four congressional deputies and two cabinet ministers left Correa’s political coalition to join the opposition to the referendum. Most significantly, these included Alexandra Ocles, an Afro-Ecuadorian woman who was the minister of the secretariat of Pueblos, Movimientos Sociales y Participación Ciudadana (SPPC, Peoples, Social Movements, and Citizen Participation), a fourth branch (together with the executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral) of the government. These dissidents released a statement that said that while they embraced the positive changes in Ecuador, Correa “cannot exceed his functions: in the exercise of power, we must recognize limits.” For that reason, they would oppose the referendum.

These former allies viewed the referendum as a naked power grab on the president’s part that betrayed the principles of their political project, while Correa attacked them as opportunists who had joined the partidocracia (the traditional party system). The president denounced their actions as a personal betrayal of his government. Acosta countered that while he supported referendums and agreed with some of the issues, he opposed Correa’s attempts to blur divisions between branches of government. In particular, he urged defense of the independence of the judiciary.

Social movements formed a final axis of opposition to the referendum. Most notable was the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), and the Movimiento Popular Democrático (MPD, Popular Democratic Movement). Founded in 1986, CONAIE gained a reputation of being one of the strongest and best organized social movements when in 1990 it lead a powerful uprising that challenged the oligarchy’s hold on power. In 1995, it helped organize the political coalition Movimiento Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik (MUPP, Pachakutik Movement for Plurinational Unity) to compete for political office.

The MPD formed the electoral wing of the Maoist Partido Comunista Marxista Leninista Ecuatoriano (PCE, Ecuadorian Marxist Leninist Communist Party), and drew much of its support from teachers grouped into the Unión Nacional de Educadores (UNE, National Union of Educators). In power, Correa had worked hard to divide and destroy both Indigenous movements and teachers’ unions who were able to mobilize bases of support separate from those that formed the president’s electoral alliance. As a result, activists who otherwise logically might form Correa’s base of support became his sworn enemies. For social movements, government attempts to improve public security meant little more than the criminalization of dissent.

In alliance with the CONAIE and the MPD, Acosta launched a movement called Montecristi Vive to oppose the referendum. In the coastal city of Guayquil, former interior minister Gustavo Larrea created a parallel movement called Iniciativa Ciudadana. Both argued that the judicial reforms violated stipulations in the new constitution.

What Does the Outcome Mean?

A strong win in the referendum should have improved Correa’s position ahead of Ecuador’s presidential elections in 2013. Pundits, however, debated what the closely divided outcome meant both for Correa and the political landscape of the country.

Although many saw the referendum as a test of confidence in Correa’s government, voters apparently also voted on the basis of each individual question. As a result, seeing the outcome as a reflection of Correa’s popularity is simplistic and perhaps mistaken.

The urban poor remain Correa’s base, though he has lost much of the support of Quito’s middle and upper classes that streamed out into the streets in April 2005 to overthrow his predecessor Lucio Gutiérrez in the so-called Forajido (“Outlaw”) Rebellion and subsequently supported Correa and the country’s new constitution.

Correa’s strongest base of support in this referendum was on the coast that in recent years has voted heavily for conservative candidates. Some social movement activists pointed to this as evidence of the rightward drift in Correa’s government, but it could equally represent a new fragmentation of Ecuadorian politics along class rather than regional lines. This development has already been apparent in recent elections in the coast port of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, in which Correa has polled very well among the urban poor.

Likewise, central highland Indigenous communities were one of the strongest bastions of opposition to the referendum. On the surface, it might appear that this represented a resurgence of CONAIE and Pachakutik, but these are also the areas where Gutiérrez has his strongest base of support and thus should be interpreted as a right rather than left opposition to Correa. The fragmented nature of the country extends into rural communities, and Indigenous peoples and nationalities do not speak with one voice.

After winning six elections and with his popularity rating hovering around 60 percent, sociologist Jorge León contends that the referendum had little to do with the president wishing to consolidate or expand his power. Rather, León argued, it related to his psychological need to be loved and adored by the people. Furthermore, with an election still two years away, a referendum would be a way for Correa to demonstrate that his opponents had little weight or presence.

Correa remains the most popular politician that Ecuador has had in decades, even though the vote might be seen to indicate a decline in his popularity. Nevertheless, the disparate opposition lacks leaders who can begin to approach the president’s level of popularity. Perhaps Correa’s weak showing in the plebiscite can be interpreted as a popular attempt to limit his actions rather than an attempt to remove him from office. Social movements in particular desire a president who is less authoritarian, less abrasive, less polarizing, and more responsive to their needs. But more than anything, the referendum revealed a deeply fractured country that appears to be becoming even more divided along race, class, and regional lines.

Marc Becker ( is author of Pachakutik: Indigenous Movements and Electoral Politics in Ecuador(Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011).