Monday, 18 February 2013

LAB: Ecuadorean elections: views from the street

by Grace Livingstone, author of America's Backyard


Three days before presidential elections in Ecuador, in which leftwinger Rafael Correa looks likely to win a third term,  I took a walk around central Quito to hear the views of voters.  I am here as election observer - a fascinating process in which 300 people from over 40 countries have been invited to scrutinise the Sunday’s presidential election, but after two days of seminars in the smart Marriott Hotel, I was itching to find out what the man and woman on the street think.

The first people I spoke to today were two road builders carefully setting new paving stones.  One said he was undecided, but the other said he was voting for Rafael Correa.  Why?   ‘He has done a lot of public works, he has improved the roads and we should elect him so he can finish the job’.  It may be unsurprising that a workman who earns his livelihood from fixing the highways, mentioned Correa’s road improvement programme first, but in fact every person I have interviewed here has highlighted better roads as one of the best things Correa has done, from the smartly suited man on the plane  - I’m not voting for Correa, but I have to admit he’s certainly fixed up our roads’, -  to the indigenous market stall holder I spoke to in central Quito who lives in Cuatro Esquinas,  a rural indigenous community.  ‘The new road to our community makes it possible for us transport our goods to the market and this has made our lives much easier’.   The road building programme has not only created jobs, but has made it much easier to travel to rural areas and the poorer coastal regions of Ecuador. 

 I then spoke to four students.  All four were voting for Correa.   Why?   University education is now free and the standards are now higher. Does that mean that most students support Correa, I asked.  No, they said, many students are angry because he has raised standards, introducing tough entrance exams, so although he removed the financial barrier for poor pupils, it is difficult to get a place at university now because there a high level of academic competition.  ‘It is a meritocratic system now. If you want to be a student of medicine, for example, you really have to show that you are up to it’, said one.  Ecuador’s universities are some of the worst in Latin America and Correa has been determined to improve them:  all university lecturers now, for example, have to have postgraduate qualifications.   

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Of the seventeen people I spoke to today, only one -- a young male cleaner for a private firm -- was voting for the main opposition candidate, the right-wing former banker Guillermo Lasso.   For him, Correa and the politicians around him were getting too powerful and he distrusted them.    An indigenous couple, selling flowers on the street, surrounded by their young children, were voting for the indigenous party Patchakutik.  Three voters were undecided and the rest, including the six indigenous market stall holders I spoke to, were voting for Correa.  All cited roads, free education and health,  as the main reasons.   Some also mention the ‘Human Development Vouchers’,  a payment of US$50 dollars a month given to the poorest families on the condition that their children go to school and see a doctor regularly.  One woman said she liked Correa because he spoke her language, Quechua, and he did not put on airs and graces.   The proportion supporting Correa in my unscientific mini-survey, was 65%, about the same rating that the official polls give him.

Correa is often compared to Hugo Chávez and Ecuador is part of ALBA the Bolivarian alliance of leftwing governments led by Venezuela.  But people here think Correa is different.  They say Correa is less ‘extreme’ and many point out, in a rather snobbish way,   that Correa is better educated: ‘He is an economist, he’s studied abroad, he’s written books on development, he knows what he’s talking about’,  said one academic.   Correa  does appears tactically adept,   having managed  to redistribute wealth and raise taxes on the rich, without alienating  the middle classes.  Although Correa’s base is among poor Ecuadoreans,  many middle class voters appreciate the economic growth and political stability Correa has brought (he is the first president in 30 years to win a second term and he came to power following a severe economic crisis).  Correa has raised the royalties on foreign companies operating in Ecuador, but he has not nationalized any industries.   Crucially, he has been careful to keep the military onside by keeping their salaries high and listening to their concerns; this paid off when the armed forces came to Correa’s rescue during a police revolt two years ago.

 Certainly, the atmosphere is far less febrile than in Venezuela;   when I lived in Caracas in 2003-2004, the country was starkly  polarized between Chavistas and the opposition,  a division that even caused rifts within families.  It’s not like that here,  say the Ecuadoreans I’ve spoken to.  There are very few slogans painted on the walls and there is not a tense atmosphere.  That’s not to say there is no sense of excitement among his supporters; there is a real sense of renewal and creating a new, more equal society.  Even the functionaries of the electoral commission, who must remain impartial, have an infectious enthusiasm for implementing new constitution and for increasing participation.

The most damning criticism I have heard of Correa has come from Luis Villacis Maldonaldo, a member of the leftwing alliance which is led by the Maoist MPD and the indigenous Pachakutik party.  Pachakutik and the MPD, backed Correa when he first came to power, as did Ecuador’s largest indigenous movement CONAIE.   But Correa lost their support when he started to grant mining concessions in indigenous areas.  Last year CONAIE organised large nationwide protests against him.  According to Maldonaldo, Correa needs to implement agrarian reform, give indigenous communities access to water, restrict mining and implement structural reforms rather than relying on ‘paternalism and handouts’.   

He also said that that Correa has concentrated power in the executive, politicising the judiciary and electoral authorities -- a claim that is echoed by Correa’s rightwing opponents too.  This is a familiar criticism of all Alba presidents, but it is strongly refuted by Correa’s supporters who say that that the new constitution makes Ecuadorean democracy far more transparent and participatory than before.     Certainly voters seem unconcerned:  opinion polls give Correa ratings of between 55% and 65% while  Lasso has only  15%.   Other candidates such as former president Lucio Guttiérez has around 4% and the MPD-Patchakuchi have less than 3%.   Correa’s Citizen’s Revolution looks set to get a ringing endorsement on Sunday.


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