May 21, 2013
Ecuador—one man, one vote?
Today Ecuador is holding general elections. Neither that country’s size nor its distance from Argentina nor the suspense over the result (or rather the lack thereof) would appear to justify an editorial in this newspaper but the election remains interesting as the first test of populist leadership in Latin America since its supreme icon Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez vacated the helm with no sign of reappearing. This overlap between the critical health problems of Chávez and Ecuador’s elections is highly apposite to the ambitions of incumbent President Rafael Correa, who would be poised to complete a decade in power if the expected landslide materializes today (especially remarkable considering that Ecuador had no less than seven presidents in the 11 years preceding Correa’s arrival in 2007). Correa has the personal credentials to assume the Chávez mantle, rivalling him in charisma and surpassing him in educational equipment, but he does not head the right country. Sharing the same flag colours, Ecuador is a mini-Venezuela whose oil output (60 percent of exports) is barely a fifth, thus lacking the critical mass to subsidize the rest of the region, while being just as much in hock to Chinese financing as Latin America’s main petroleum exporter. Given that the sudden importance here of relations with the Chávez fetish Iran suggests that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner might also be interested in inheriting the leadership of Latin America’s hard left, the future of Correa’s aspirations has its relevance to Argentina.
Apart from its scale, Ecuador is also a very odd fish in terms of economic model — a dollarized economy which is nevertheless barred from global capital markets as a result of its partial national debt default of 2008. Correa combines state planning and and socialist policies with heavy subsidies (which have reduced poverty from 35 to 27 percent since 2007) with a more pragmatic approach to the international oil industry and even more mining. Compared to Argentina, Ecuador has seen slower growth over the last decade (averaging 4.3 percent), but also less inflation (four percent last year).
While most outside interest falls on the presidential race, perhaps the real key to these elections will lie in the 137 parliamentary seats where the pre-2007 parties and leaders still hold some sway, thus making a Correa legislative majority less of a foregone conclusion. Whether or not he clinches that majority will probably determine whether Ecuador is in for some extreme legislation (including harsher media laws) or more of the same.