Is Ecuador the next Venezuela?

Ecuador's new president will govern a country where over half of the population questions his legitimacy, amidst a complex economic situation and skepticism over the CNE's impartiality. Sound familiar?

After a second voting round, which should’ve defined who would be the next President, Ecuador is left on the brink of social confrontation and a crisis of legitimacy of unforeseeable consequences.

Even though the National Electoral Council issued results at 11:00 p.m. of April 2, announcing Correa-handpicked candidate Lenín Moreno as the winner with a mere 2.2% advantage, tens of thousands of Ecuadorians took to the streets to protest against what they considered was electoral fraud. Thousands stood in vigil on the streets throughout the night and early in the morning of April 3 to force the National Electoral Council to respect electoral results. Opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso announced that he’ll demand a vote recount, because he has evidence that ballots were tampered with.

The people’s reaction, regardless of whether the results were true or not, is explained by how shady proceedings were throughout Sunday, especially because of the Electoral Council’s lack of credibility as an institution completely subservient to Rafael Correa’s government.

The ghost of the Venezuelan crisis lurks in this period of social unrest.

Questions were first raised when the Electoral Council’s webpage went down for 20 minutes during the afternoon and came back online with 94% of ballots counted and the news that Lenín Moreno was leading the results. The opposition’s unease was heightened when the CNE issued information that Moreno was ahead by 200,000 votes with only 96% of ballots counted, despite the fact that at least three exit polls were showing Lasso as the winner. This was telling because the CNE had refused to issue results during the first voting round until 100% of the ballots had been counted. Later, opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso announced that he’d challenge the results, claiming that he had evidence that many ballots were counted in favor of Moreno.

By then, at least 6,000 people had gathered near National Electoral Council headquarters to demand respect for popular will. Not far from there, the government candidate Lenín Moreno celebrated his triumph along with president Correa in another rally attended by at least 2,000 people.

Protests against the results sprang up almost in every city of the country, without major violent incidents being reported thus far. The ghost of the Venezuelan crisis lurks in this period of social unrest. The opposition spoke during the campaign about the risk of Ecuador following on Venezuela’s footsteps with a Moreno victory. Even Lilian Tintori, wife of political prisoner and dissident leader Leopoldo López, was invited by candidate Lasso and, even though she was barred from entering the country, her situation was widely discussed during the campaign. Meanwhile, the government did all it possibly could to persuade the electorate that there are no parallels between the realities of Ecuador and Venezuela. There’s a large Venezuelan community in Ecuador or at least 60,000 people, living in hard economic conditions.

Venezuela’s case resurfaced after electoral fraud complaints. Social networks were flooded with references of what happened during the 2013 presidential elections and former Venezuelan Electoral Council authority Ana Mercedes Díaz has become one of the most outspoken critics of the alleged fraud. Díaz was even forced to take refuge in the American Embassy while overseeing the first voting round that took place past February 19th, claiming that Correa’s government wanted to arrest and deport her. Díaz points out that Ecuador’s Electoral Council has committed fraud through software tampering.

The government did all it  could to persuade the electorate that there are no parallels between the realities of Ecuador and Venezuela.

But the strange events that took place after polling stations were closed are not the only reason behind the opposition’s decision to protest on the streets. Public indignation is also supported by the CNE’s almost complete lack of credibility. The institution has allowed the government to use every available State resource to boost Moreno’s campaign, including gross proselytizing on State-controlled media, whose support for Moreno’s bid had become increasingly obvious in recent weeks. A sizeable portion of Ecuadorians are evidently skeptical of the Electoral Council’s role in guaranteeing a fair electoral process.

Ecuador is now paying the price for adopting Correa’s political system, with no branch autonomy, where oversight institutions such as the Prosecutor’s Office, the Comptroller’s Office and the Electoral Council itself are under government control. People feel helpless before the Party-State’s power and see public protest as the only way they have left to defend their rights.

Ecuador is now paying the price for adopting Correa’s political system where oversight of institutions is under government control.

The risks of an open social conflict due to these elections are rooted in the fact that the country is divided in half, with one of the sides still supporting Correa’s political system. Not so long ago, however, approval for Correa’s model was nearly 70%, but economic recession due to dropping oil prices and accusations of corruption have caused a relevant portion of society to reconsider.

Even though results announced Lenín Moreno as the victor, if he’s sworn into office, his grasp on the government might be weakened by a lack of legitimacy. Such a close victory leaves the country divided and suspicions of fraud will make it hard of Lenín Moreno to govern, this in addition to the critical economic situation of a country unable to finance the enormous and costly State, legacy of the Correa administration.

It’s unclear if a Moreno administration will lend the same unconditional support to chavismo than Correa did.

In case Moreno’s triumph is confirmed, he’ll inherit a country where over half of the population won’t recognize him as a legitimate president amidst a complex economic situation that will raise all stakes. Therefore, if Moreno is indeed sworn into office, his legitimacy will be severely questioned, making Ecuador ever more vulnerable to social conflict.

So why should this matter to anyone outside of Ecuador? At a regional level, Ecuador’s situation is quite delicate. It’s one of the only two countries still supporting the chavista regime in Venezuela, the other being Bolivia. If Lasso had won, Maduro’s government would’ve lost one its last allies. It’s unclear, however, if a Moreno administration will lend the same unconditional support to chavismo than Correa did.

Moreno knows that he’ll take office with dwindling political capital and a population fearful of having to experience a new version of Venezuela. We shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Moreno might distance himself from Maduro once he’s president.

This won’t be easy, in any case. A relevant portion of his party’s militancy strongly identifies with chavismo and several Assembly legislators fall into this group. Whatever the outcome, Venezuela will remain a important point in Ecuador’s political debate. Ecuadorians know for a fact that thousands of Venezuelan migrants are loathe to see a correísta in power, because the fear of reliving what they left behind in Venezuela is constant, and that has been a strong point of contention throughout the presidential race.

Venezuela is definitively an issue that Moreno must be extremely cautious about in order to improve the legitimacy of his government, which is headed for a rough start with a weak nation much more divided now than when he accepted to run for office.

Martín Pallares

A political journalist since the 1990's, Martín was fired from El Comercio for speaking out against President Rafael Correa on social media. He now runs the blog