This was a bit of a surprise:
A conservative businessman has unexpectedly won Ecuador’s presidential election as voters rejected the leftist movement started by the former president Rafael Correa more than a decade ago.
Preliminary results showed that Guillermo Lasso took 52% of the vote in the runoff following a campaign that pitted free-market economics against the social welfare plans of Andrés Arauz, an economist.
“We will work together from now on for true change,” Lasso wrote on Twitter. “Today we woke up in peace and with the certainty that better days are coming for everyone.”
This outcome is surprising because Lasso barely even made it into the second round of voting. He carried only two of Ecuador's 24 provinces in the first round of voting and edged out third-place finisher Yaku Peréz of the left-indigenous Pachakitik party by only 0.36%. Lasso surged in the second round of voting, held two Sundays ago, to win 18 provinces and the presidency.
Ecuador's incumbent President, Lenin Moreno, did not seek re-election.
Lasso's election represents a significant shift from the leftist administrations that have governed the small yet beautiful Andean nation over the past fourteen years, and may have been a function of voters' dissatisfaction over the excesses of those administrations as well as the way the country has handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Foreign Policy's Will Freeman explains:
More than just a competition between two candidates, the polarizing election became a referendum on Ecuador’s recent past. Arauz ran as the handpicked successor of the populist former leader (Rafael) Correa and promised to return Ecuador to the era of Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution”: a period from 2007 to 2017 marked by high growth and the emergence of a new middle class, but also by repression and censorship of Correa’s civil society critics.
The vote shows that nearly four years after Correa left office, distrust of his brand of authoritarian populism still runs deep among a broad cross-section of the population. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic twice pushed Ecuador’s health system to the brink of collapse and plunged 3.2 million additional Ecuadorians into poverty, a plurality of voters preferred an untested alternative over a return to the past.
However, Lasso faces a formidable task in negotiating Ecuador's political divisions and governing effectively:
Disillusion with democratic institutions is running high, and Lasso will take office as an isolated president with a weak mandate, given the balance of parties in the recently elected legislature. The top three left-wing parties and coalitions hold almost 70 percent of the seats. That means he will face a much bigger challenge in governing than in winning a plurality of votes: He will need to convince his opponents that even when they lose, it’s still worth playing by democratic rules of the game.
This is important to note, because the "democratic rules of the game" have not been historically well-followed in Ecuador. Since the 1940s, the country has enjoyed only three relatively short periods of democratic stability, where presidents were allowed to serve out their terms (unless they died in mysterious plane crashes) and the transfer of power between elected governments was peaceful: 1948 to 1961, 1979 to 1997, and 2007 to the present (the country's most recent presidential ouster occurring in 2005).
(Lasso) will find scarce legislative support in Ecuador’s newly elected National Assembly, where his Creating Opportunities party and its ally, the Social Christian Party, control just a fifth of the seats. Even among parties on the left, there is much division. The largest legislative bloc is formed by Arauz’s Union for Hope coalition, which remains loyal to Correa’s vision of active state intervention in the economy and staunchly opposed to Lasso’s slate of market reforms. The next two biggest left-wing parties in the legislature—the Pachakutik party, which is committed to environmentalism and Indigenous people’s rights, and the Democratic Left—are in talks to form a united front. The coalition plans to oppose privatization of state enterprises, reform of the Central Bank, and new extractive projects that could cause environmental harm. Pachakutik and the Democratic Left remain bitter toward Correa, who put hundreds of Indigenous leaders and environmentalists on trial during his time in office.
Freeman suggests that Lasso's best course of action may be to work with this center-left front in forming policy, thereby keeping his opposition fractured and Correa's loyalists in the National Assembly at bay.
However, if Lasso attempts to go it alone or proves unwilling to make substantial policy concessions, he could quickly make friends out of enemies, and all three left-wing parties could find common ground in opposing him in the National Assembly or, more ominously, in the streets. In this worst-case scenario, Ecuador could come full circle to the presidential ousters and economic chaos that plagued the 1990s—an outcome all sides have a stake in avoiding.
The presidential inauguration will be held in Quito on May 24th.