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April 8, 2021

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ECUADOR: A complex horizon for whoever wins presidential run-off

BY Nicholas Watson

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Campaigning officially ends tonight, 8 April, ahead of the 11 April presidential run-off vote. The vote comes down to a binary choice between populist leftism in the shape of Andres Arauz, and anti-Correismo, as represented by the conservative Guillermo Lasso. Polarization is acute. There is also likely to be a sizeable number of spoiled and blank ballots cast since the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie) is calling for a protest vote against both Arauz and Lasso.

Polling problems

No poll correctly predicted the February first-round result; most overstated Lasso’s support and failed to capture how well the third- and fourth-placed candidates, Yaku Perez and Xavier Hervas, would do. To complicate matters, polls cannot be published in the final ten days before the election, which is precisely when undecided voters make up their minds (bear in mind that voting is compulsory). It is also difficult to predict how calls to cast spoiled ballots will be heeded. Finally, some polls are used as political tools to boost candidates’ standing.

Uphill for Lasso

While it appears that Lasso has been gaining ground, it remains the case that he has the more difficult route to victory. Recent events tend to reinforce this situation. Conaie leader Jaime Vargas on 3 April pledged his support for Arauz, prompting jubilation from former president Rafael Correa (2007-2017). However, Conaie swiftly disowned Vargas and reiterated its position that the indigenous population should cast a protest vote.

The key question is how many voters Vargas can bring with him in support of Arauz. The indigenous communities most liable to going with Vargas are mainly Amazonian. This is where many voters’ association between Lasso and the deeply unpopular President Lenin Moreno could come into play; indigenous communities in the Amazon are strongly critical of the Moreno administration, which they blame for an oil spillage in April 2020. It does not help that Lasso promises to ramp up oil output should he win. Ultimately, this equation points to Lasso’s fundamental weakness – that many voters still doubt him despite significant anti-Correa sentiment. This dilemma was summed up by Perez’s running-mate, Virna Cedeno, who says she will cast her vote for Lasso, not because she wants him as president but to keep out “21st century socialism.”

Challenges facing the next president

Regardless of who wins, the challenges facing the next incumbent are daunting. If Lasso is elected, it could well be only on the basis of a narrow margin of victory. The National Assembly (AN) will be fragmented and fractious. Neither Arauz nor Lasso would have a legislative majority. Fiscal space will remain limited. The agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will be subject to revisions, even under Lasso given his refusal to consider raising VAT. Finally, the health crisis continues.

When to expect results

Voting hours have been extended so polling centers will be open from 07:00 to 17:00. Exit polls can be released as soon as voting ends; Cedatos is the most reputable pollster carrying out an exit poll. The CNE electoral authority is optimistic that the vote count will proceed quickly. Votes from abroad could slow down the count. The 2017 run-off vote was subject to claims of fraud and recount demands, accompanied by protests. A narrow victory for either candidate could trigger a similar response.

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