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Ecuador is no stranger to political confrontation. When Lucio Gutiérrez, the country’s last elected president, stepped down in April 2005 in the face of violent protests in Quito, he became the third head of state in eight years to be forced from office early. In recent months, the Andean country has been hit with unrest in the eastern jungle region aimed at foreign investors in the oil sector and demonstrations in the highlands against a trade pact with the US.

But as Ecuador approaches general elections on Sunday, there are fears of a new wave of social conflict in one of the region’s most divided societies. Rafael Correa, a radical nationalist closely linked to Hugo Chávez, the anti-American firebrand president of Venezuela, looks set to top the poll, although he is forecast to fall short of the 40 per cent mark needed to avoid a second round in November.

Whomever Mr Correa faces in that second round, it will pit his “citizens’ revolution” against the country’s traditional political forces. Mr Correa’s candidacy has been negative from its inception – promising to take on the power of vested interests. Advisers to León Roldós, the centre-leftist opinion polls say is most likely to meet him in the November 26 run-off, are already planning to intensify their negative campaign against Mr Correa.

That sets up more than a month of bitter electoral warfare in what is already a sharply divisive presidential race. In a country whose recent political history has been marked by instability, it is a prospect that many fear could lead to conflict.

“We are being threatened with more of the same – with more violence, chaos, insecurity and instability,” Cynthia Viteri, one of Mr Correa’s conservative rivals, said last week.

Polibio Córdova, a former central bank president who runs Cedatos, a polling organisation in Quito, says that since the country returned to democracy in 1979, Ecuadorians have “never seen such a great confrontation between two models of government, economic management and style of leadership”.

In recent speeches across the country, Mr Correa has repeatedly told his supporters to brace themselves for electoral fraud. “Correa’s using that accusation to make a larger point about the establishment being against him,” says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank in Washington. “This can only heighten the risk of real confrontation and instability. It’s hard to envisage a scenario in which that confrontation is reduced – at least in the short term.”

Many in Ecuador fear that should Mr Correa lose in the second round, he would imitate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist who narrowly lost Mexico’s presidential election in July and has staged street protests ever since. “What has happened in Mexico could certainly set a precedent,” says John Crabtree of the Latin American Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford University.

That could be very unsettling in a country beset by divisions and in which presidents have been toppled by relatively small street demonstrations. Mr Crabtree notes that even in the turbulent Andean context, Ecuador is a very fractured country, with deep social, economic, ethnic and geographical differences.

But should Mr Correa ultimately triumph, social peace also seems remote. His Allianza País party is not putting forward any candidates for Congress, which is widely seen as a discredited and corrupt institution. If he wins, Mr Correa has vowed to convene a constituent assembly to undermine the legislature. That would be likely to provoke a drawn-out war between Mr Correa and the traditional parties, fought between the branches of government themselves.

“The Congress that will be elected on October 15 will by definition be anti-Correa,” says Mr Córdova. “He says that sovereignty comes from the citizens and if it tries to block him, he will mobilise the people against Congress. That will make political instability worse.”

There is general agreement on the need to reform a system that has contributed to so much political turmoil, but, in the words of César Montúfar, a columnist at the El Comercio daily in Quito, “the problem of political reform is not so much the what as the how”. That thorny question seems certain to provoke conflict between Mr Correa and the political establishment.

The candidate himself does not deny that his approach is combative, but argues that social divisions are natural in a system that has not worked for the underprivileged.

“Polarisation springs from the difference between rich and poor,” he says.

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