Ecuadorians will head to the polls on February 4 to cast their vote in a referendum that could prove to be decisive for the government of President Lenin Moreno and the political direction of the country.
Moreno was elected president last April as the candidate of PAIS Alliance, the party of former left-wing president Rafael Correa. However, less than year on from the election, Correa – together with a majority of PAIS Alliance activists – now view Moreno as a “traitor” for failing to honour his commitment to continue the policies of the Citizens’ Revolution, which was kick-started by Correa’s election in 2007.
The referendum campaign is divided between a Yes and No sides, with the former headed by Moreno.
The No campaign is primarily lead by Correa and the newly formed Citizens’ Revolution Movement (MRC), which is made up of pro-Correa activists who split from PAIS Alliance. Twenty-eight former PAIS Alliance national parliamentarians have so far joined Correa’s new political movement.
The referendum, referred to as a “popular consultation”, involves seven questions.
Three questions directly deal with reversing reforms previously enacted under Correa’s administration.
Question 2 asks whether the previous constitutional change to allow for indefinite re-election to public office should be reversed.
Question 3 seeks to change the current structure of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS) and remove its current members before their term is up.
Question 6 seeks to repeal the tax on land and real estate speculation brought in by the Correa administration and strongly opposed by large landowners and property developers.
The question on preventing re-election has been criticised as a cynical measure designed to prevent Correa himself from being able to stand in the 2021 presidential elections.
The law is not expected to affect major opposition figures, such as Guayaquil mayor and serial tax evader Jaime Nebot, who have been consistently allowed to stand for re-election without any constraints.
The proposed change to the CPCCS would reduce the established terms for the committee that oversees the process of selecting the attorney general, representatives to the electoral council, the comptroller general and other positions within the state.
The question also proposes to remove current members of the CPCCS and replace them with a “transitory” committee appointed directly by the president, effectively giving Moreno direct oversight over the future direction and political alignment of these bodies.
The repeal of the speculation tax would represent the biggest concession yet to the right-wing opposition.
Correa initially introduced the measure in May 2015 as a way of targeting superprofits derived from the sale of land and real estate by the wealthiest 2% of the population. The tax was seen as a means to reduce a rising budget deficit, which had come about due to a fall in economic growth.
The tax was opposed by every major opposition party, especially by politicians with ties to the banking industry, like Guillermo Lasso, and those that belong to the landowning and property developer elites, like Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas and Azuay Prefect (governor) Paul Carrasco.
The manner in which the consultation was called by Moreno marks a sharp, authoritarian departure from the previously established norms for calling referendums.
While previous popular consultations and referendums in 2011 and 2017 received the approval of the Constitutional Court before being formally convened, Moreno’s government chose to effectively bypass the court’s ruling.
Instead, it utilised a loophole in the Organic Law of Jurisdictional Guarantees which states that the court must approve or reject referendum questions within a 20-day period, with silence being interpreted as de-facto approval.
Following the expiration of the 20-day period, the court called for public hearings to assess the validity of the referendum’s questions.
Moreno however chose to ignore the court, in a move that received the backing of the country’s private and public media. Moreno instead publicly demanded that the Constitutional Court approve the referendum’s questions, and that two of the court’s judges be investigated and sanctioned for voicing their opposition to this measure.
For many Correa supporters, the referendum is another attempt by an increasingly rightward-leaning Moreno administration to dismantle the legacy and achievements of the country’s 10-year long process of change.
End of the Citizen’s Revolution?
Since being elected on a platform of continuing the left-wing economic policies of the Correa administration, Moreno has undertaken a number of actions that have won him praise from right-wing political opponents.
Commencing a “national dialogue” of reconciliation, he proceeded to foster closer cooperation with members of the opposition such Nebot and Abdala Bucaram Jr, who ran against Moreno in 2017 and is the son of a former right-wing president. Moreno has gone as far as appointing individuals close to the Bucaram family in charge of a number of hydroelectric projects.
Moreno has also begun to mimic the opposition’s rhetoric regarding high levels of public debt and corruption, the need for austerity, and its criticisms of the Correa administration (during which Moreno served as vice-president for 6 years) over supposed economic mismanagement and excessive public and social spending.
Moreover, Moreno replaced the administrations of the public newspaper El Telegrafo and the public television station Ecuador TV with private media-friendly executives in July 2017.
Moreno also transferred the control and distribution of electronic cash from the Central Bank of Ecuador to the Association of Private Banks, a move long demanded by Ecuador’s financial and corporate sector.
Perhaps most importantly, Moreno lent his support to the corruption allegations against his now-dismissed vice-president Jorge Glas, a staunch Correa loyalist.
Despite an almost complete lack of evidence, Glas was accused of receiving bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht and placed in preventative detention in December 2017, pending an appeal against his 6-year jail sentence.
The scandal was heavily criticised by Correa who denounced the move as an attempt to purge the cabinet of any dissent to Moreno’s policy turn.
The rightist nature of Moreno’s government becomes more apparent when analysing the different groups and individuals that have pledged to support the Yes vote.
Prominent political figures on the right, such as Nebot, Lasso, ex-president Abdalá Bucaram, and the various political parties they represent, have all actively campaigned in support of a Yes vote.
Private media outlets that opposed Correa, such as the newspapers El Comercio and El Universo, and the television stations Ecuavisa and Teleamazonas, have been broadcasting messages and advertisements in support of the Yes campaign.
Recent events in Esmeraldas province demonstrate what a victorious Yes vote could mean for the future of the country.
While giving an interview at Radio Magia, in the city of Quininde, Correa was attacked by local members of the opposition, who proceeded to surround the radio station, vandalise his car and threaten his bodyguards.
The attack was allegedly conducted by members of the Democratic People’s Movement (MPD), an offshoot of the Maoist-oriented Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Ecuador (PCMLE) that backed Lasso in the 2017 presidential elections.
Supporters of the Yes campaign seem to be more than willing to resort to violent tactics and strategies that have become closely associated with the most vicious elements of the right-wing opposition in the last several years.
While the country’s old economic elites, former neoliberal presidents, bankers and landowners have thrown their weight behind the Yes vote, the No campaign has been primarily led by veteran leaders of the Citizens’ Revolution that remain loyal to its original ideas of overturning neoliberalism and establishing a plurinational socialist state based on the indigenous values of “Good Living”.
Should Moreno and his new allies emerge victorious on February 4, it would mark a serious step backwards for progressive change not only in Ecuador but also throughout Latin America, which is increasingly under threat from resurgent right-wing political forces in Argentina, Brazil and Chile.