How protests forced Ecuador’s upcoming runoff presidential election

The runoff election for Ecuador’s next president is on April 2, and it will be the first time in 10 years that Rafael Correa — the popular current president, who has served two terms — isn’t on the ballot. This final round of voting would not be taking place were it not for the efforts of a nonviolent campaign — featuring virtually all sectors of society — that sought to protect and defend the presidential election in February after issues of fairness and transparency came to light. This broad-based movement did not materialize out of nowhere. Instead, it was the culmination of years of organizing.

Sliding toward autocracy

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was elected for the first time in 2006 under the banner of “Citizen Revolution,” which promised structural changes in the administration and the creation of a more equitable society. However, over the last 10 years, Ecuador has moved in the direction of an autocracy, where the normal democratic mechanisms are blocked. The government has called national news media outlets corrupt; traditional political parties have been branded as “partidocracia,” a derogatory term to describe the influence of political parties as a disease affecting the democratic regime; and indigenous opponents have been persecuted and criticized.

Additionally, there has been clear evidence of corruption within the government, such as overpriced infrastructure projects and the manipulation of Ecuadorian debt by former Chancellor and current Defense Minister Ricardo Patiño, as well as under-the-table oil deals approved by former Vice President Jorge Glas — who is running again for vice president this year.

These conditions sparked Ecuadorians to organize. Since the beginning of Correa’s first term in 2007, the indigenous people have used a wide variety of tactics — including demonstrations and road blockades — to support their community rights and oppose the water law and price increases, while media outlets highlighted international complaints about the restrictions in freedom of expression.

Ecuadorians also mobilized to protest against the oil exploitation of the Yasuní National Reserve Park. Green groups, indigenous peoples’ campaigns and the civil society collective Yasunidos gathered 756,291 signatures to ask for a referendum. People also demonstrated for a month in 2015, and more than a week in 2016, against three bills submitted by Correa to raise taxes.

Satire and humor have also been used against the regime by groups like Crudo Ecuador — a Facebook page focusing on opinion and free expression — and people like Xavier Bonilla, who is better known as “Bonil” — a prominent cartoonist punished by the Correa regime. Meanwhile, upstart publications like Cuatro Pelagatos and Plan V are trying to foster a better informed and more critical public through investigative and independent journalism.

Ensuring clean elections

The 2017 presidential election, which were held on Feb. 19, marked the high point in resistance to Correa, as doubts about the fairness in the electoral process emerged. Days before the election, the president of the National Electoral Council, or CNE, announced that the preliminary results would be ready on election day by 8 p.m. According to Ecuadorian law, a candidate needs more than 50 percent of the votes — or at least 40 percent and a difference of 10 points over the second candidate — to win the election without a second round of voting.

The counting of votes was displayed on a large screen at a hotel in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where national and international press were present to witness the final result. However, at 11:45 p.m., the screen was turned off and the main transmission center was closed without explanation. The CNE dismantled the transmission system with 80.3 percent of the votes counted. At that point, there was a difference of nearly 10.4 percent in favor of the ruling party’s candidate, Lenin Moreno, who had almost 38.9 percent of the vote, with his main rival, Guillermo Lasso, at 28.5 percent.

The political proposals of both candidates differ radically in content and ideology. Moreno seeks continuity with Correa’s administration, which made important political changes, like the establishment of a new constitution. His party, Alianza Pais, is oriented toward socialism with a clear progressive agenda. Moreno’s platform prioritizes employment, loans for young entrepreneurs and businessmen, access to higher education, a responsible and sustainable use of natural heritage, avoiding media monopolization, and improving the living conditions for elderly people.

On the other hand, CREO, Lasso’s political party is identified with the right. He is a neoliberal former banker and businessman, who is proposing to create a million jobs, eliminate certain taxes to attract investment, sign cooperation agreements with United States, China, Japan and the Pacific Alliance, repeal the communication law, sell government-seized channels to the private sector and restore democracy with a separation of powers.

Many government opponents warned of possible fraud before the election. To protect the electoral process, several tips were published on Facebook and Twitter by groups such as Levántate Ecuador and Emputados Ecuador. For example, they told voters to bring a non-erasable pen to the election — in order to prevent tampering — and to wear a yellow T-shirt, or the Ecuadorian soccer team jersey, to identify themselves as opposed to the ruling government and better facilitate vote counting against the regime. At the same time, Lasso launched a network to monitor the election that was comprised of more than 40,000 volunteers and adherents to his political party.

Over the next three days, the Ecuadorian population widely engaged in a popular nonviolent struggle to protect its electoral system. At midnight on election night, people gathered in demonstrations outside of the CNE to protest the lack of transparency during the electoral process, while also asking for the immediate results.

As new actors and organizations got involved in the nonviolent upheaval, the fearlessness among the resisters increased, weakening one of the major sources of the government’s power — fear of punishment. Demonstrations blocked several of the most important streets in Quito. Support also came from other cities, where people were protesting on the outskirts of the CNE’s local offices. Ecuador’s robust indigenous movement, which has been organizing since the 1990s, called for the election process to be transparent and for the results to be published quickly.

The group grew in size and strength, undermining some of the government’s bulwarks of power, such as the police, military services, media outlets and the Catholic Church.

The Ecuadorian army’s Council of Generals called on the authorities to ensure strict respect for the population’s will, as expressed at the polls, and demanded a transparent scrutiny of the election — marking a clear shift in favor of the movement. The Chamber of Business Council demanded the results of the electoral process and asked the CNE to maintain its responsibility for a clean election. Police denounced previously marked ballots and said that they had been sent to the CNE as evidence.

The national press corps covered every detail of the election process, while the international press suggested the possibility of fraud. Local authorities in the two main cities — Quito and Guayaquil — called for transparency. Public personalities, such as a former Vice President León Roldós, also criticized the amount of time that the CNE had taken to evaluate the electoral results.

To be sure, there were elements of disunity within the movement. Agent provocateurs appear to have been sent in to trigger violence during the vigil in front of the CNE in the days following the election, but they were identified and denounced on social networks. It was clear that the government intended to blame the traditional right, which included the candidates who came in second and third. Despite the attempted provocations, however, nonviolent discipline was maintained.

Three days later, on Feb. 22, the CNE confirmed that there would be a runoff election after Correa accepted the results from the first round of voting. The final presidential election will be held on April 2. The presidential election in Ecuador was ultimately untarnished because the regime wanted to defuse social tension that was building in the streets.

As the second round nears, the movement — formed by public figures, politicians, popular comedians, journalists, groups on social media and civil society — is taking more precautions to ensure that the will of the people prevails. For starters, they are calling on voters to wear white T-shirts on election day and take pictures of their ballots that can be uploaded to social media. They also want to see support for the participation of electoral observers.

Some of the Facebook groups, independent publications and activists that played an important role in the mobilization last month are beginning to invite people to the streets on April 2, before the election is over, to monitor the last minutes of the vote and its counting. Given the strong concern over fraud, Ecuadorian society remains on alert and the nonviolent movement that has been building over recent years will be activated if it is needed.

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