History and Politics in Ecuador
On Sunday, April 26, 2009, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador was reelected with overwhelming support for his post-neoliberal economic platform and plans to "re-found" Ecuadoran politics. Three experts reflected on the current political situation in Ecuador and on relevant background in the newly-published The Ecuador Reader.
Carlos de la Torre, Professor of Political Studies at the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences FLACSO-Ecuador and a Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow, discussed populism's role in Ecuador's political development. De la Torre defined populism in terms of political discourse that posits an antagonistic relationship between "the people" and "the oligarchy."
"Populism is one of the most important democratizing forces in Ecuador and Latin America," he argued. "It constructs the people as the essence of a nation," empowering common people to put their demands before the government as well as expanding the franchise.
De la Torre outlined the history of populist rulers in Ecuador, the "nightmare" certain presidents had represented for civil liberties and democratic rule, as well as the attempts by Ecuadoran elites to do away with populist forms of governance. He referred especially to Rafael Correa, under whom "the people" have been defined primarily in terms of social class. Correa's actions, De la Torre said, were always based on a permanent campaign of winning votes and tracking opinion polls, but not consistently on the rule of law or democratic procedures. Populism in Ecuador was not only a product of weak institutions, he argued, but also of the failure of the state to fulfill basic functions, including the provision of security.
Steve Striffler, Doris Zemurray Stone Chair in Latin American Studies and Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans, reflected on how Ecuador has changed politically over the last decade. Social movements are more widespread, and Correa's re-election, as opposed to presidents serving one term or less, represented a positive sign of increased stability. However, Striffler acknowledged that Ecuador's economy remains highly dependent and reliant on primary commodity exports (oil), remittances, and tourism. Workers continue to struggle for basic rights like healthcare and decent wages, and much of the population remains economically marginalized. Governing and living in Ecuador remains difficult, he said, despite the fact that "Ecuador has been profoundly democratized by popular struggles."
Institutional changes and challenges
Catherine M. Conaghan, Professor of Political Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, analyzed President Correa's ability to resolve three fundamental problems that have dogged the political system since the 1979 transition: parties and governance, judicial instability, and corruption.
Conaghan noted that Ecuador's party system is one of the most fragmented in Latin America, and "has played a major role in generating the country's periodic crises of governability over the last 30 years." The party system is highly volatile, with voters frequently changing allegiance from election to election. The number of parties and their nature—often serving as personalistic vehicles—contribute to the fragmentation.
Support even for stable parties is concentrated geographically, reinforcing regional antagonisms between the coast and the Sierra. The Ecuadoran president traditionally could not count on legislative majorities, creating a volatile "witches brew" in the context of a strong executive. Chronic executive-legislative stalemate has only partially been overcome during Correa's presidency.
Judicial instability in Ecuador is also a chronic problem. The judicial branch was restructured seven times between 1970 and 1988, and attempts by President Lucío Gutiérrez to stack the Supreme Court served as one catalyst for his overthrow in 2005. Following his ouster, there was no Supreme Court for eight months, resulting in a backlog of cases yet to be resolved. Now, the court (Corte Nacional de Justicia under the new constitution) is composed by 21 judges designated by a Consejo de la Judicatura which is composed by nine representatives who are selected on merit grounds by a commission of the Consejo de Participación Ciudadana y Control Social, a newly formed institution in the new Constitution. The constant political struggle over Supreme Court nominees appears resolved for the moment, but at an unknown cost for judicial independence.
The ongoing potential for corruption in Ecuador is troubling, Conaghan said; corruption is a chronic issue that has been "constantly destabilizing" in the political system. In 2008, she noted, Transparency International gave Ecuador a ranking of 151, worse than Paraguay and Nicaragua. To address corruption, Correa has replaced the former anti-corruption agency the Comisión de Control Cívico de la Corrupción (CCCC) and has created a new Secretaria Nacional Anticorrupción within the new Secretaria de Transparencia. However, the head of the Consejo de Participación Ciudadana y Control Social, the umbrella for these commissions, has publicly admitted that the Consejo is not capable of handling the CCCC cases.
The ability of civil society to provide social accountability has been weakened by the troubled state of the Ecuadoran press. Correa has been effective in "shouting down" the Ecuadoran press, identifying journalists by name and accusing them of having political agendas. He has also tried to discredit major papers such as El Universo
Conaghan concluded that it is still unclear how Ecuador's new constitution will be implemented. The country is in "constant economic crisis," she said, but will probably "muddle through."