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The left won Ecuador’s presidential election — cue right-wing revolt

Lenin Moreno celebrates after Ecuador’s election board said he won the country’s presidential election. Mariana Bazo/Reuters

If Netflix had known how Ecuador’s April 2 presidential election would turn out, it might have waited to promote the fourth season of its award-winning political drama House of Cards. The post-run-off scenes in this South American nation were worthy of any political thriller.

The second round of voting handed victory to Lenin Moreno, candidate of the ruling left-wing Alianza País and the designated heir of president Rafael Correa (whom he served as vice president from 2007 to 2013). Moreno won narrowly with 51.16% of vote while his opponent, conservative former banker Guillermo Lasso of the CREO-SUMA alliance, had 48.84%.

Initial suspense over the neck-in-neck race quickly gave way to political hysteria by evening as the defeated candidate and his supporters (largely Ecuadorian elites), alleged fraud and took to the streets – and the airwaves – in violent protest. After more than a week of discord, Ecuadorian officials have now announced that they will undertake partial recount – the second such effort, this time double-checking contested results only.

Lasso’s VP candidate, Andrés Páez Benalcázar, had demanded a manual recount supervised by both parties in an April 13 New York Times en español opinion piece.

A brief chronicle of the fraud that wasn’t

Here’s how it all went down.

At 5:01 pm on election day, television channels announced exit poll results with opposing outcomes, each calling the race for “their” man. The privately owned Ecuavisa concluded a Lasso victory on results (later discredited) from one polling agency. Meanwhile Ecuador TV, a public channel, handed Moreno the win.

By 5:15 pm, with official results still unreleased, journalists on non-state media were congratulating the not-president-to-be: Ecuador’s media battle in all its splendour.

Four long hours later, at 9 pm, Ecuador’s national election board confirmed Moreno’s victory in a live press conference.

To exactly no one’s surprise, Lasso fervently denied the election results at 10 pm, alleging fraud (without providing – then or ever – any evidence). Even Jaime Nebot, a Lasso ally, exhorted the CREO camp to offer proof for his accusations.

Political hysteria

This peculiar thriller might have been funny if the democratic future of a country weren’t at stake.

The Hungarian historian István Bibó has spoken of political hysteria to explain what happens when communities fail to confront a powerful problem that threatens, if not their very existence, then at least their identity. They tend toward the stratagem of creating a fictional problem as a substitute for the real crisis they lack the tools or intellect to resolve. This tactic, Bibó says, allows people to feel a sensation of relief and grandeur.

Presumably the defeated Lasso and his supporters felt neither when they resuscitated the hypothesis of election fraud, which had also been floated after the tight first round of voting in February.

Guillermo Lasso speaking to his supporters after contesting election results as fradulent. Henry Romero/Reuters

Several international transparency monitors have recognised the validity of the election and many Latin American presidents, as well as the Organisation of American States (OAS), European governments and the US Department of State have congratulated President-elect Moreno.

This did not stop the Lassistas, who, finding themselves impotent against a government they had declared “populist institution-inundaters”, laid siege on Ecuador’s institutions and demanded a recount “from the streets”.

Political conflict and an institutional deluge

Starting on April 3 and continuing through today (even as these lines were being written), Lasso and his allies have disrupted life in Ecuador’s major cities. In Quito, Cuenca, Guayaquil and Loja, people are burning tyres and staging aggressive public actions to express their discontent with Moreno’s win and support for the fraud allegations.

One image stands out: groups of Ecuador’s elite classes praying in the middle of a Quito avenue, begging God to alter the election results.

Alianza País supported the recount request in deference to the mass citizen outcry. That April 8 and 9 effort, with participation of the OAS and the South American bloc UNASUR, not only confirmed the original outcome but actually allotted Moreno even more votes. Thus far the Lassista opposition has ignored these results.

In an attempt to bring the current conflict to a close, President Correa proposed another “random recount” of certain scrutinised disctricts, though such an action may not be legally recognised. The recount will take place on Tuesday April 18.

Lasso supporters: not happy about their loss, and not staying quiet about it. Mariana Bazo/Reuters

Institutional distrust

There are real reasons for some measure of this political hysteria.

Many of those who reject Ecuador’s election results have convinced themselves – thanks, in part, to a favourable social media microclimate – that a ruling-party candidate could never win this election. After a decade of Alianza Pais leadership, Ecuador today is experiencing a powerful economic slowdown, and many feel that Correa-style populism has run its course.

Amid claims of high-level corruption within the Correa administration, others have little faith in government, so they find it difficult to trust Ecuador’s official electoral board.

And though Lasso did indeed lose some steam in the final weeks of his second-round campaign, external events also appeared to be hurting Moreno’s chances. These were largely related to the ongoing crisis in neighbouring Venezuela, which reinforced some people’s concern that continued Alianza Pais rule would turn Ecuador into its polarised, conflict-ridden neighbour.

Things started to go south in mid-March when Ecuadorian authorities denied entry to Lilian Tintori, the wife of a prominent Venezuelan opposition politician anda Lasso supporter, because Ecuadorian law prohibits visas for the purpose of prostheltism. An incident in which Alianza Pais zealots roughed up Lasso at a soccer match reinforced the narrative that a Moreno win would lead to Venezuela-style civil unrest.

Tough act to follow

Beyond electoral drama, the president-elect will confront a variety of real national challenges when he takes power on May 24. Fhe first order of business for Moreno will be reinforcing his legitimacy, given that nearly half of Ecuadorians cast their vote for change.

Moreno’s victory is widely seen as a referendum on the ‘21st century socialism’ legacy of President Correa (left). Mariana Bazo/Reuters

Lasso’s widespread support derived less from his political platform or personal charisma (and much less from his role in Ecuador’s economic crisis of 1999) than from a certain exhaustion with President Rafael Correa’s leadership. To restore confidence in government, Moreno is likely to seek to include the different social and political forces of the country in his government.

He must also show that he has autonomy from Correa and is committed to strengthening Ecuadorian state institutions (other than the presidency). His comportment during the post-run-off contentiousness has not necessarily demonstrated this.

Still, the candidate’s promised “de-Correafication” process must be advanced cautiously, as many Ecuadorians still revere the current president and his pro-poor policies.

Moreno also faces a stagnant economy, which Ecuadorians see as the country’s biggest problem. He must restart it, and do so without resorting to austerity and free-market ideas, as the conservative new presidents of Argentina and Brazil have done.

The fact that Correa’s chosen successor won in Ecuador shows that a majority of citizens agree on at least one thing: there’s no tolerance now for the Latin American neoliberal dogma in which the masses must suffer fiscal and social “adjustments” so that economy may later see some modest gains, after a decade of irrefutable expansion of rights.

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