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Ecuador’s President Triggers ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’

Cody Searl | Latin America Fellow

Image credit: Juan Ordonez

Ecuador – a country known for its orchids and hummingbirds, chocolate and bananas, towering volcanoes, expansive rainforests, and rich indigenous heritage – is in the midst of its largest political crisis in decades.

On 9 May, Ecuador’s National Assembly voted to progress impeachment proceedings against President Guillermo Lasso. He is accused of having knowledge of corruption surrounding oil and gas contracts, and failing to act in the national interest. In reality though, the National Assembly would be evaluating Lasso’s performance as president, and with a 17 per cent approval rate, he had little reason to feel optimistic.

Left with no good options, on May 17 Lasso declared a muerte cruzada (loosely, “mutually assured destruction”) – a never-before-used constitutional mechanism that would allow him to dissolve Congress and rule by decree until new elections are held. Citing a grave political crisis and social upheaval as the reason for his decision, Ecuador now faces significant political instability and a possible constitutional crisis.

A Lame Duck President

Ecuador’s surging murder rates, weak economy, and rising cost of living have only worsened since Lasso became president in 2021. To make matters worse, a combination of fierce congressional opposition and personal blunders have seriously hampered the pro-business, former banker’s ability to seriously address these challenges; only two of his bills have passed the National Assembly since his term began.

In June 2022, following weeks-long protests over rising food and fuel prices, the opposition fell 12 votes short in their first attempt at impeachment. Since then, the hapless president has swung from one political disaster to the next. In February this year, Lasso tried to break the National Assembly gridlock by putting forward an eight-question national referendum. Not only were all eight proposals struck down by voters, but the opposition won concurrent elections in Ecuador’s two most populous cities, Quito and Guayaquil.

How Did We Get Here?

First, one must remember that political instability is the norm in Ecuador. Three Ecuadorian presidents were overthrown between 1996 and 2005. Enter Rafael Correa – a charismatic left-wing populist who oversaw unprecedented political stability, strong economic growth, and drastic improvements in poverty during his ten-year presidency. An oil-exporting economy, Ecuador benefitted greatly from China-driven commodity boom of the 2000s, and Correa invested much of these windfall profits into social programs for Ecuador’s poorest.

Riding enviously high approval ratings between 60 and 85 per cent, this quasi-authoritarian leader pushed things too far. Viewing his opponents as enemies of ‘the people’ rather than legitimate political competition, he waged war on the independent media, passed a new constitution that strengthened executive powers (and abolished presidential term limits), and changed electoral laws to advantage his left-wing coalition.

Correa’s handpicked successor for the 2017 election – Lenin Moreno – was supposed to be a placeholder until Correa could legally run again in 2021. However, once in power, Moreno began reversing many of the authoritarian trends of his old mentor. Critically, Moreno held a successful referendum to reinstate presidential term limits, effectively barring Correa from returning to power.

While many of these processes were incomplete, Moreno was held up as a possible rare example of post-populist democratic recovery. Unfortunately, necessary reductions in government spending combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that a third of Ecuadorans were plunged into poverty by the end of his term. So when the 2021 election came down to socialist Andrés Arauz – Correa’s new handpicked candidate – and Guillermo Lasso, the election became in many ways a referendum on Ecuador’s recent past; Correa’s pro-poor policies on one hand, his autocratic excesses on the other.

For a new bloc of voters who rejected both Correa’s illiberalism and Lasso’s neoliberalism, the election became an “unpopularity contest.” In the end, Lasso became the country’s first right-wing president in 15 years despite only winning 28 per cent of the first round vote. Promising to reduce government debt and attract foreign investment, his efforts have been hamstrung by a weak mandate and a legislature where 70 per cent of seats are held by Correa’s left-wing coalition. Lasso has since failed to build a stable governing coalition.

What Comes Next?

Lasso will now govern by decree until new elections are called in August 2023. In the meantime, the Constitutional Court must decide whether Lasso’s justification for his Muerte cruzada was justified. If not, Ecuador may be thrown into a full blown constitutional crisis. Regardless, Lasso’s chances of re-election (should he choose to run) appear very low.

Ecuador’s two other political blocs – Correa’s populist movement and Ecuador’s powerful left-wing Indigenous Confederation, CONAIE ­­­­– both swore to call mass protests if Lasso declared a muerte cruzada. CONAIE has denounced the current situation as a ‘coup’ and a ‘dictatorship,’ but so far has not called for widespread unrest. Correa’s movement may in fact be celebrating Lasso’s decision, believing that current electoral winds blow in their direction.

As for ordinary Ecuadorians, they distrust the National Assembly even more than they did Lasso.

A Difficult Road Ahead

Ecuador’s experience is not unique in Latin America. The 2000s commodities boom saw millions of people from countries like Chile, Bolivia, Brazil and Mexico join the middle classes. When these economies began slowing from 2014, there was neither the private savings, nor public investment in areas such as infrastructure and education, to stop people sliding back down the ladder.

As the gap between ordinary people’s income and aspirations has widened, deep wells of frustration and discontent have often spilled over into social unrest. This has also led to broad resentment in traditional politicians and political parties; 15 of the last 16 national elections have seen the incumbent (or their successor) lose out.

It’s still unclear whether Ecuador can avoid another cycle of protest and violence. Either way, the small Andean nation will choose a new president before the year’s end. Society is polarised. Pulled between a contempt for Lasso’s dysfunctional government and his neoliberal agenda, and a left-wing populist rhetoric that blames the country’s misfortunes on its state institutions and a self-serving elite.

Meanwhile, the realities of Ecuador’s mounting debt, stagnant economy, surging crime and mass migration continue to bite. Regardless of the impeachment outcome, Ecuador faces a difficult road ahead.

Cody Searl is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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