Source: Guillermo Granja, Reuters
The night of April 11 was a shock to the system of the correísta political movement in Ecuador, as its candidate lost the Ecuadorean presidential election for the first time since Rafael Correa came to power in 2006. After initially peddling claims of potential fraud, Correa’s handpicked heir, Andrés Arauz, eventually conceded the second-round election once former banker Guillermo Lasso’s lead stretched to over four percent. Arauz’s defeat was unexpected, given that the former minister had entered the runoff as the clear favorite (having won the first round by a margin of almost 13 percent). His second-round campaign, however, was uninspiring, advocating a return to an idealized correísta past despite sorely lacking Correa’s distinctive personal charisma. Adding to his campaign’s woes, Arauz proved unable to disassociate himself from the perception—held by a significant portion of the Ecuadorean electorate—of correísmo’s irredeemable corruptness, nor to transcend his links to the historically unpopular government of outgoing President Lenin Moreno (in which he served as a Central Bank official until 2020). By contrast, Lasso was able to successfully appeal to independent voters by softening his neoliberal positions, emphasizing non-traditional progressive issues important to young voters, and focusing on a forward-looking message of hope and unity.
Following its bruising presidential election loss, correísmo has also found itself frozen out of the majority coalition in Ecuador’s National Assembly. Despite still boasting the largest legislative bloc, the movement has been excluded from key congressional positions and commissions due to the unlikely pacts struck between Lasso’s party (Creando Oportunidades, or CREO), the left-wing Indigenous party Pachakutik, and the social democratic Izquierda Democrática (despite the fact that both of these parties are ideologically closer to correísmo than they are to Lasso’s conservatism).
The challenge of remaining relevant
Correísmo has, by far, been the most successful political movement in Ecuador’s recent history. Through a combination of a distinctive anti-establishment political narrative, populist policies, and constitutional reforms which concentrated political power in the executive branch, correísmo managed to win not only presidential elections but also landslide congressional majorities, a departure from the political fragmentation that had characterized previous decades.
As is tradition with Latin American political movements, correísmo’s key strength has been the popularity of its charismatic leader and namesake, Rafael Correa. The fact that Arauz, a virtually unknown and uncharismatic former minister, was still able to capture almost a third of the vote in the first round demonstrates that merely being “Correa’s candidate” can still deliver votes by mobilizing the correísta base. Arauz’s feat is even more impressive when one considers that Correa has been absent from Ecuador since he moved to Belgium four years ago, and is unable to return due to a bribery conviction. However, Arauz’s weaknesses as a candidate meant that he was unable to gain sufficient votes from non-correísta segments of the electorate in order to win the election. Indeed, apparently aware of his unsuitability as correísmo’s standard bearer, following his defeat Arauz quietly retired into the shadows, returning to his PhD studies in Mexico. Lacking local leadership—due to the fact that many of its key figures are in exile—correísmo’s dependence on Correa himself has become its Achilles heel, especially given that Correa’s influence is likely to continue to diminish over time.
A second challenge for the movement is providing a forward-looking platform that does not focus exclusively on restorationist promises with respect to the Correa era. Although Arauz’s campaign slogan was “Recovering the future,” in reality his campaign heavily emphasized the “recovery” at the expense of “the future,” appealing to nostalgia for the governments of Correa’s “Citizen Revolution.” This enabled other left-wing candidates—namely, Pachakutik’s Yaku Pérez—to build support running on novel, socially and environmentally-oriented political platforms.
Correísmo also risks becoming obsessed with the past in another way, by focusing on overturning corruption charges and convictions against key figures of the movement (including Correa himself). Indeed, an important factor behind correísmo’s recent failed attempt to forge a majority coalition in the National Assembly was its apparent insistence on the creation of a “truth committee” to investigate the “political persecution” of movement leaders. This request was too much to swallow for various parties that were unwilling to risk being seen as enablers of correísmo’s attempts to secure “impunity” for its former officials. While legally absolving itself from corruption accusations would be a major victory for correísmo that would go far toward restoring and vindicating its popular image, this interest risks becoming all-consuming, which would imply ceding leadership on key issues of policy to other political movements and parties.
Down but not out?
In spite of everything, however, correísmo continues to represent the main anti-establishment and anti-system political current in Ecuador. While few candidates in Latin America today are keen to embrace the label of “21st century socialism,” left-wing populism remains a vital political phenomenon in Ecuador and South America more broadly (as recent elections in Peru and Chile have demonstrated).
In spite of having just elected an elite banker to the presidency, years of economic stagnation and declining living standards—combined with increasing inequality exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—continue to make Ecuador vulnerable to such populism, should it be packaged successfully. Indeed, the significant increase in spoiled ballots—a practice endorsed by Pachakutik and other major Indigenous organizations—which constituted a historic 16 percent of all ballots cast in the second-round runoff and indirectly benefited Lasso, represented another manifestation of this anti-system sentiment among the Ecuadorean electorate.
Much of the political future of correísmo will depend on the success of Lasso’s government, and whether or not it can demonstrate that the “system” can work—by vaccinating the population against COVID-19, improving living conditions, and consolidating legitimate political institutions. On the other hand, should socioeconomic and political instability prevail in Ecuador, they would provide the perfect conditions for correísmo to stage a comeback. However, in these circumstances, it would not necessarily be the only voice seeking to benefit from an anti-establishment positioning. Indeed, the first-round success of Pérez—who successfully presented himself as an “outsider” candidate opposing both “corrupt correísmo” and “neoliberal Lasso“—demonstrates that anti-system rhetoric is no longer the exclusive provenance of correísmo. Thus, the movement may be forced to compete with fresh faces for the anti-establishment vote, making correísmo’s return to power even more challenging.
Sebastian Hurtado is the founder and President of Prófitas, a political risk consultancy based in Quito.
Roisin O’Donohue is a political analyst at Prófitas.