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August 25, 2020

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ECUADOR: Withdrawals favor Lasso but 2021 presidential field is crowded

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • Guillermo Lasso of the center-right Creating Opportunities (CREO) party has the early advantage ahead of the 2021 presidential elections.
  • Former president Rafael Correa’s legal problems could well thwart his aspirations for a comeback as vice-president.
  • Political fragmentation, prospective party alliances, the ongoing health crisis, and the state of the economy inject the electoral outlook with considerable uncertainty.

Following party primary processes that concluded on 23 August, there are 19 confirmed candidates for the presidency. The first round of the presidential election is scheduled for 7 February 2021, alongside legislative elections; if required, a run-off presidential vote would take place on 11 April 2021. However, the line-up could still change for two reasons. First, parties have until 3 September to form alliances, which could whittle down the field. Second, former president Rafael Correa (2007-2017), who is running as a VP candidate alongside Andres Arauz at the front of the Union for Hope (UNES) coalition, may yet be forced to withdraw because of his legal problems.

The dropouts

The line-up is notable for who is absent as much as for who is running. The former Guayaquil mayor and Social Christian Party (PSC) leader Jaime Nebot had already ruled himself out of the race. As much of a surprise is that former VP Otto Sonnenholzner also withdrew late last week despite giving every indication over recent months that he would run. Additionally, the banana magnate and serial presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa also withdrew. What is remarkable is that the first two – and possibly Noboa too – had a decent shot at reaching a run-off vote. Add to these absences the very real possibility that Correa will be unable to go ahead with his VP candidacy.

Correismo

Ineligible for the presidency, on the surface it appears that Correa is copying Cristina Fernandez’s successful 2019 stratagem to regain power in Argentina as VP to a weaker, handpicked president. Arauz, who occupied relatively minor positions during Correa’s presidency, is young, little known, has no power base of his own – and is therefore appropriately pliant.

Correa’s problem is that he is supposed to register his VP candidacy in person but if he returns to Ecuador (from self-imposed exile in Belgium), he faces immediate arrest. Correa allies intend to resolve this problem by obtaining power of attorney to register their leader’s candidacy. This would be highly contentious and may not be permitted by the CNE electoral body. It is also possible that the final appeal against Correa’s conviction for bribery (as part of a public works kickback scheme) is rejected before he can formally accept his candidacy.

The UNES, a newly minted brand for Correismo, appears to acknowledge how fragile its position is; a back-up VP candidate to accompany Arauz is already waiting in the wings. Plan B would see Correa seek a seat in the National Assembly representing Ecuadoreans residing in Europe – for which he could register at Ecuador’s consulate in Belgium. Either way, Correa can claim he is a victim of political persecution and exclusionary “lawfare.” This could give the former president added exposure but probably not enough to lift Correismo’s popularity much above the 20% mark, especially as Arauz is not a heavyweight candidate.

Lasso as early favorite

The main beneficiary of the withdrawal of Nebot and Sonnenholzner would appear to be Guillermo Lasso of the center-right Creating Opportunities (CREO) party, who lost the 2017 election by a 2.3% margin. With plentiful resources and useful campaign experience from the bitterly fought 2017 election, Lasso now has an opportunity to construct a centrist alliance. If he can reach a run-off vote, Lasso could reasonably expect to pick up PSC votes given that it is difficult to see the PSC making much headway with a candidate – Cristina Reyes – who does not resonate with highland voters. Note that Lasso – from coastal Guayaquil – is making Quito his campaign base.

Lasso’s choice of a medical doctor (Alfredo Borrero) as his running-mate could also prove astute in the context of the Covid-19 epidemic – even if a woman would have been an even better fit given the overall lack of female candidates. The challenge facing the CREO leader is if voters reject orthodoxy and policy moderation in the face of the Covid-19-induced economic crisis and following President Lenin Moreno’s outreach to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The main takeaway from the polls currently is the high level of indecision and uncertainty among voters.

…and the rest of the pack

At this early stage of the race, it is difficult to distinguish genuine contenders among the other candidates, who hail from across the political spectrum and include political neophytes and veterans alike. The list of other candidates includes a former president, Lucio Gutierrez (2003-2005); Correa’s estranged brother Fabricio Correa; the businessman Isidro Romero Carbo; the Azuay provincial prefect Yaku Perez running on behalf of a divided indigenous movement; and Ximena Pena running for the governing Alianza Pais (AP) party, which surely faces punishment from voters after the difficult Moreno presidency.

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