Local elections were held in Ecuador on February 23, 2014. 23 provincial prefects and vice-prefects (all provinces except the Gálapagos), 221 mayors in every canton (the equivalent of municipalities), a total of 1,305 members of cantonal/municipal councils across the country and the 4,079 members of the parish councils (juntas parroquiales) in 412 urban and 816 rural parishes (the lowest-level administrative divisions, below cantons). Prefects and mayors are directly elected by FPTP, while the members of cantonal and parish councils are elected by open lists. Prefects and mayors have been limited to two consecutive terms in office since the 2008 Constitution, but because these term-limits are not retroactive, some incumbents seeking reelection ran for their third, fourth or even fifth terms in office.
The prefects preside over an unelected provincial council made up of the prefect, vice-prefect and all mayors in the province. Prefects have little power: legally responsible for spatial planning, roads, water management, nature protection and promotion of agriculture and the economy, these tasks are handled by mayors in urban areas. Furthermore, they have little fiscal and financial powers, given that provinces rely on the central government for its resources. However, prefects do hold a good deal of influence because they control public procurement and the hiring of civil servants in the provincial administration – breeding favouritism, nepotism and corruption. Each province, except the province of Pichincha (which includes Quito), has a governor appointed by the President who is charged with coordinating the national civil service in the province. The mayor is the head of the canton and presides over the municipal council. They have similar powers to prefects, but they also have tax-raising powers.
President Rafael Correa was reelected to a third term in office in February 2013 with about 57% of the votes in the first round. Correa’s party, the Alianza PAIS, won 100 out of 137 seats in Congress. Correa, a left-winger, has been President of Ecuador since 2006 and he has since then imposed himself as the hegemonic figure in Ecuadorian politics and taken a fairly prominent position on the international stage. In office, Correa spearheaded the adoption of a new constitution in 2008 and has strengthened the power of the executive branch. Correa’s government has gained strong popular support through generous social welfare grants, micro-loans to small businesses and farmers and ensuring universal access to healthcare and education. Correa’s hostility to the Ecuadorian private media has attracted significant attention around the world. Correa, who never minces his words, considers much of the private media (generally hostile to the government) to be in the hands of corrupt businessmen. Since 2006, Correa has sought to increase state control of the media, either by creating new state-owned media sources or seizing or shutting down privately-owned media. Constitutional amendments in 2011 created a government-controlled media oversight body and reformed the judiciary; the opposition strongly criticized the move as a power grab by Correa.
Correa is often compared to Evo Morales or other Latin American leftist leaders – indeed, like much of the Latin American ‘radical left’ originally inspired by Chávez, Correa is hostile to foreign capital, capitalism, vaguely defined ‘imperialism’ and domestic opposition (branded as ‘reactionaries’) and has built up popular support through social programs to alleviate poverty while shoring up presidential powers. However, unlike Evo Morales, who is an indigenous Bolivian with close ties and roots in grassroots indigenous and coca-growers movements, Correa, a US-educated technocrat, has relatively little ties to social movements and has in fact been rather hostile to critical indigenous groups or social movements (even on the left). Electorally, Correa has often fared worse in the heavily indigenous areas of the Amazonian rainforest (the Oriente) – in the 2013 election, Correa won less than 50% of the vote in every province in the Amazon, while winning over 55-60% in much of the Costa and Sierra (western coastal and central mountainous regions), where the population is predominantly mestizo or Afro-Ecuadorian. Indigenous groups, led by the influential Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and Pachakutik, CONAIE’s political party, have confronted Correa on a number of issues, especially the highly contentious question of oil drilling and mining concessions in the Amazon.
With his huge legislative majority and popular mandate, Correa has pushed forward with a number of controversial projects since 2013 and has picked fights with his opponents. Economically, Correa, with his ‘change of the productive matrix’ agenda, has been trying to diversify Ecuador’s oil-based economy into an ‘industrial and knowledge-based economy’, notably with the active promotion of new infrastructure projects and the development of new industries (oil refining, petrochemical, steel etc). The government passed a law making mining investments by foreign investors easier and more attractive; many mining projects face strong local opposition. However, struggling to attract foreign investment since it defaulted on its foreign debt in 2008, Ecuador has been forced to turn to China, becoming dependent on oil exports to China and Chinese loans in exchange.
In August 2013, Correa dropped his landmark Yasuní-ITT initiative (a commitment to refrain from exploiting oil reserves in the biologically diverse Yasuní National Park, in exchange for 50% of the value of the reserves from the international community). The government blamed the lack of international support, but critics charge that Quito bowed to Chinese pressures and the government’s desperate thirst for cash. Correa has argued that oil development will be controlled and limited to 1% of the park, that no roads would be built and that oil extraction will help reduce poverty. Despite that, opponents of the measure, led by indigenous organizations and environmentalists, marched on Quito (but failed to gather large crowds) and faced police paint guns. After the protest, anarchist singer Jaime Guevara gave Correa, in a presidential motorcade, the middle finger. Correa, a very confrontational person, personally threatened him and called him a drunk drug-addict (repeated in one of his national TV broadcasts, which Correa uses to castigate opposition and indigenous leaders) – even if Guevara is epileptic and a teetotaler. Correa was later forced to apologize.
Opponents of oil drilling in the Yasuní – students, some opposition politicians, environmentalists and CONAIE – are currently seeking to gather signatures (600,000 required) to hold a referendum on the issue. Correa, as is usual, has denounced Yasuní’s opponents as naive and irresponsible leftists (he usually calls them the ‘infantile left’), and has been able to count on the backing of mayors in the Yasuní National Park region, eager for their share of revenues. At the same time as he promotes oil drilling domestically, Correa’s government has been locked in a judicial battle with US oil giant Chevron, sued by victims of heavy oil pollution in the Amazon in the 1980s.
Oil drilling in the Yasuní has raised significant concerns for the survival of indigenous groups, including two uncontacted peoples living in voluntary isolation (the Taromenane and Tagaeri) and the impact of oil drilling the lifestyle and culture of indigenous groups.
In June 2013, the parliament passed a new communications law which guarantees a right to ‘verified, contrasted, precise, and contextualized information’ and prohibits ‘media lynching’, vaguely defined as the publication of information ‘undermining the prestige or credibility of a person or legal entity’. A new presidential-appointed officer, the Superintendent of Information and Communication, will be charged with enforcing the law and handling ‘media lynching’ cases. Critics have said the law grants too much power to the new non-independent body and raised concerns about the implications for journalists’ investigations into corruption and internet anonymity. In December 2013, police raided the homes of an anti-corruption journalist and Pachakutik deputy, seizing computers and phones and accused the two men of hacking Correa’s email account. A cartoonist in the anti-government El Universo newspaper who published a cartoon critical of the raid was sued by the Superintendent. The newspaper was charged a hefty fine and forced to publish a ‘correction’ to the cartoon; the ‘corrected’ cartoon sarcastically poked fun at the raid. Later, in another case, a government-owned newspaper published information, allegedly stolen through hacking an opposition leader’s email account, about a project to create a news agency investigating corruption.
The government has also attacked independent NGOs critical of its policies. Using a 2013 presidential decree which create a state body to regulate, monitor and even dissolve NGOs, a environmental and indigenous rights organization was dissolved in December for participating in a violent protest in which foreign representatives (Chilean and Belorussian) were attacked. Correa also picked a fight with doctors over a poorly written criminal code article which allows judges to sentence doctors for ‘criminal medical malpractice’ – if a patient dies as a result of ‘dangerous, unnecessary and illegitimate actions’ by the doctor. Doctors protested, Correa threatened to hire Cuban doctors and resign if the law was changed (apparently, Correa has threatened to resign no less than 13 times since 2007).
In a presentation released by the government’s online publication El Ciudadano, Alianza PAIS is said to have won 10 out of 23 prefects and 68 out of 221 mayors, a gain of 2 and loss of 4 respectively from the 2009 local elections. The same document says that Alianza PAIS won 50% of the vote in prefectural elections, 34% of the vote in mayoral contests and 37.5% in municipal council elections. However, most attention was given to individual races.
One of the most important contests was in the capital, Quito, held since 2009 by Alianza PAIS’ Augusto Barrera, whose tenure has been marked by the inauguration of a new international airport and the beginning of construction on a subway system for Quito. Barrera, who was elected in 2009 with 43.1% of the vote, faced 2013 presidential candidate Mauricio Rodas, the leader of his own-man centre-right United Society for More Action (SUMA) party. Rodas, who is 38 years old, is a lawyer and former president of the youth wing of the right-wing Social Christian Party (PSC). Rodas’ 2013 presidential candidacy, vaguely centre-right and ostensibly ‘progressive centrist’, was backed by a few small parties and politicians, including the Evangelical Indigenous Federation (a conservative evangelical movement at odds with Correa and CONAIE). Rodas’ mayoral candidacy was backed by Antonio Ricaurte, a centre-left (ostensibly pro-Correa but anti-Barrera) candidate who placed second behind Barrera in 2009. Rodas’ campaign focused on lower taxes, lower traffic fines and good government; faced with the eventuality of defeat, Barrera lowered traffic fines after having previously denounced such a move as ‘demagoguery’.
Mauricio Rodas (SUMA/VIVE) 58.66%
Augusto Barrera (Alianza PAIS) 37.94%
In a major defeat overshadowing better results elsewhere, Correa’s party lost Quito’s city hall by a wide margin. The defeat is particularly bad because Correa campaigned heavily for Barrera in the final days. However, the defeat seems to owe a lot to local factors, given that Alianza PAIS’ incumbent simultaneously won Quito in the prefectural election (with 59.6%) and PAIS won more votes than Rodas’ SUMA alliance in the municipal council election (this outdated article, based on 61% of precincts reporting, said PAIS won won 41.5% against 39.9% for SUMA).
President Correa has said that he doesn’t know who Rodas is personally, but that he ‘knows’ that the people behind him want his government to fall and have contacts with the ‘fascist right’ in Venezuela.
Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and economic capital, has been – municipally – a right-wing PSC stronghold since 1992. In 1992, former President León Febres-Cordero (1984-1988), a local businessman connected to the city’s powerful business establishment and a fairly disastrous president, was elected mayor of Guayaquil. His successful management of the city, after decades of rule by populist lunatics (notably Abdalá Bucaram) who looted the city’s coffers, turned the city into a PSC stronghold at the municipal level. In 2000, LFC was succeeded by Jaime Nebot, a Lebanese businessman (a former governor and deputy of Guayas closely connected to Guayaquil’s business establishment, he was also LFC’s protégé) who had run for President in 1992 and 1996, both times losing in the runoff. Nebot has proven to be a popular mayor, with local infrastructure and modernization projects as well as anti-poverty social programs. Nationally, Nebot has some prominence as one of the leading figures of the anti-Correa opposition – Nebot led the unsuccessful no campaign against Correa’s 2008 constitution, which was rejected by guayaquileño voters. Nebot was reelected with 56.8% in 2004 and 68.4% in 2009. Nebot was backed by his own personalist party, Madera de Guerrero, and the PSC; his PAIS opponent was Viviana Bonilla, a young former governor of Guayas province (2012-2013).
Jaime Nebot (PSC/Madera de Guerrero) 59.50%
Viviana Bonilla (Alianza PAIS) 39.11%
In an unsurprising result, the popular centre-right mayor of Guayaquil was reelected with a large majority, albeit significantly reduced from 2009. The PSC has also maintained its large absolute majority in the cantonal council, estimated to have won 10 out of 15 seats, with the other seats going to Alianza PAIS.
In Cuenca, a former centre-left mayor defeated by Alianza PAIS in 2009, Marcelo Cabrera, won a rematch against the PAIS incumbent, Paúl Granda. At the same time, however, PAIS appears to have held a large majority in the cantonal council. The anti-Correa centre-left prefect of Azuay province (Paúl Carrasco), where Cuenca is located, was also reelected against a PAIS candidate. Carrasco had been elected in 2009 with Correa’s support, but he has since turned into a strong opponent of the president.
In Esmeraldas province, according to incomplete results, incumbent prefect Lucia Sosa, the candidate of the ostensibly far-leftist MPD, has been very narrowly reelected with 39.8% against 38.6% for the PAIS candidate, former soccer player Iván Hurtado. The MPD, however, was unable to hold the canton of Esmeraldas, gained by former justice minister Lenín Lara (PAIS).
Another bad result for Correa’s party came, surprisingly, from El Oro province, where incumbent prefect Montgomery Sánchez (a local political boss who is now pro-Correa), in office since 1996 and reelected with over 80% in 2009, was defeated by PSC/SUMA candidate Esteban Quirola, 41.6% to 50.9%. In the provincial capital of Machala, the son of the incumbent mayor and other local strongman Carlos Falquez (PSC), was elected to succeed his father, barred from running because as a radio owner he doesn’t conform to a new communications law.
On the other hand, PAIS was able to hold the prefects of the three major provinces: Guayas, Pichincha and Manabí. In Guayas province, incumbent prefect Jimmy Jairala, a former opponent of Correa (he used to be a member of Abdalá Bucaram’s arch-corrupt personalist populist Roldosist Party, PRE) who has turned into an ally of the President, was reelected with PAIS’ support against the PSC candidate. Jairala won 52.8% of the vote. In Pichincha province (Quito), PAIS incumbent Gustavo Baroja was reelected with about 61%. In Manabí province, finally, incumbent prefect Mariano Zambrano Segovia, elected for a local party in 2009, was handily reelected with PAIS’ support, taking 56.2% of the vote. However, PAIS candidates, including one incumbent, were defeated in Portoviejo and Manta cantons, the two largest cities in the province. In a number of other prefectures, a similar pattern occurred: PAIS held the prefecture, but its candidates – including incumbents – lost in the largest cantons, notably in the provinces of Los Ríos, Tungurahua, Chimborazo, Santa Elena and Santo Domingo.
The governing party did badly in the Amazon, winning only one province – Napo – where incumbent prefect Sergio Chacon Padilla, elected for former President Lucio Gutiérrez’s populist PSP, ran and won (narrowly, against the PSP) reelection for Correa’s party. Incumbent Pachakutik prefects, strong opponents of Correa, in the Amazonian provinces of Zamora Chinchipe, Morona Santiago and Orellana were all reelected. The PSP gained the province of Sucumbíos while SUMA won Pastaza province; Pachakutik also held the province of Cotopaxi, in the Sierra.
Although PAIS remains Ecuador’s largest party and seemingly the only party with nationwide influence over a provincially fragmented and ideologically disparate opposition, it is generally considered to have lost this year’s local elections – the first electoral setback for Correa since taking office in 2007. The defeats in Quito and Cuenca – among other defeats for PAIS – have contributed to shaping this narrative. It is true that local government remains more challenging for PAIS, a new political force, which has run into well-entrenched provincial and local political machines and powerful local caciques. PAIS’ showing in 2009, when local elections were held alongside presidential and legislative elections handily won by Correa’s party, was less impressive. But at the same time, PAIS has managed to build up a strong base in local government, either through elections or oftentimes through defections from venal, populist and corrupt local political bosses (such as Jimmy Jairala in Guayas province).
Correa has blamed his party’s poor showing this year on ‘sectarianism’ – what he sees as PAIS’ refusal to ally with local parties (which is a bit silly given how many old politicians and local bosses PAIS has recycled). However, he has denied that his party lost the elections, saying it only suffered local setbacks. In the meantime, however, Correa – who had until now denied interest in running for another term in 2017 (the 2008 constitution limits him to two terms under the present constitution, so he is not eligible to run for a fourth term – or third under the 2008 document – in 2017) – has now publicly said that he has a ‘duty’ to ‘revise’ his ‘sincere decision not to run for reelection’ because of ‘the clouds’ which are stalking his Revolución Ciudadana (a thinly veiled reference to the opposition’s successes in these elections).