An ebbing tide? Keeping democracy in Latin America

Published on 1 March 2017

Positive developments in world politics are difficult to notice when headline news are crowded with disparaging stories of populist leaders, nationalistic discourses, attacks on the media and xenophobic sentiments. But last week Ecuador, a small South American democracy, turned heads in the region with the outcome of its presidential election.

After three days of tense electoral uncertainty, the country’s Electoral National Council announced that the government candidate and frontrunner Lenin Moreno did not obtain the voting threshold to win an outright victory in the first round of the presidential election, and he will need to face the opposition in a run-off election on 2 April.

This was by far an unexpected but welcome result that will strengthen democracy in Ecuador and it signals a different path for ending the left-turn tide in the region.

A decade of resource nationalism in Ecuador

The 2017 Ecuadorian general election has been a referendum on the nationalist project of Moreno’s predecessor, Rafael Correa who has governed the country since 2007.

Similar to his counterparts in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, Rafael Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution came to power with the promise to end the corrupt, obsolete and self serving influence of traditional parties through new forms of direct participatory democracy. Benefitting from unprecedented natural resource revenues, the Correa administration expanded the role of the state in the economy, improved infrastructure, increased social spending, and contributed to poverty reduction.

But like its 21st Century Socialism neighbours, Correa could not resist the temptation to increase his presidential powers and gain absolute control over the party’s legislative majority in Congress, appoint cronies to the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Council, the Attorney General and the General Comptroller.

During his mandate, Correa also curtailed civil and political freedoms by blocking the registry to some political parties, persecuting journalists, closing newspapers and critical media outlets and personally attacking critics during his weekly televised appearances.

In a country where the government party “owned” the rules of the game, the playing field and the referee, it was a major surprise that, according to the final results from the National Electoral Council, the official candidate fell 0.65% short of the voting threshold needed to win the presidential election in the first round.

Why did the government resist the temptation to “nudge” the votes to secure a first round victory and accept to face the opposition again in a more uncertain second round election?

In other words, why would a regime that has systematically undermined democratic practices, agree to face the opposition in a second round?

Why did Ecuador’s government not win the first round? Three explanations

1.    Influence of mass mobilizations

During three consecutive days –and nights- after the February 19 election, thousands of citizens across the country, stood in vigil outside the offices of the National Electoral Council to demand a fair, transparent and agile vote count.

2.    Gathering of support from other opposition parties

In an unprecedented manner, almost all of the leaders from major opposition parties who ran in the first round, pledged to support for the runner up candidate in defense of democracy “beyond personal differences or ideologies”.

3.     Declared neutrality of the Armed Forces

During the early hours of electoral uncertainty, the higher military command sought to end further speculations of electoral fraud by publicly declaring their constitutional duty to uphold democratic institutions, to ensure social peace and guarantee a fair and transparent election.

A turning point for the political “left turn” in Latin America

The wave of 21st Century Socialism once raised hopes that new forms of participatory democracy could reinvigorate the nature and quality of democratic representation. But after more than a decade in power, the reality on the ground offers a much darker future for citizen participation in the region, as political rent seeking elites have captured participation to advance their own political gain.

  • In Bolivia, president Morales defied the results of a national referendum and will insist on pushing a constitutional reform –through legislative action- that will allow him to run again –for a third term- in 2019.
  • In Nicaragua, the revolutionary government of Daniel Ortega and his wife won the 2016 presidential election by a landslide amid claims of vote fraud, vote intimidation and persecution to opposition candidates. With this victory, Ortega will complete a fourth term in office until 2021.
  • And finally in Venezuela, the Maduro Administration won the 2013 election by a narrow and much disputed margin, to continue with the so-called Bolivarian Revolution initiated by Hugo Chavez nearly two decades ago. In the context of a mounting economic crises, street and government sponsored violence and widespread social unrest, Maduro has not committed to holding local elections or presidential elections in 2017 and 2018.

Effective citizen participation cannot be an exclusive government property

Ecuador still faces many political and economic challenges ahead, but the 2017 election represents an important turning point for democracy. It shows that after a decade in power, the government does not have the monopoly of effective citizen participation. It shows that street mobilizations can produce change when coupled with organized party membership and credible institutions.

The incoming government will face economic stagnation, a 5% GDP deficit and a 13bn debt left by the Correa administration; and the outcome to the second round election remains open. But the country has so far avoided the “perpetual revolution” of its socialist neighbours and recovered the basic democratic hopes of democratic alternation and separation of powers.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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