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Ecuador 's Fractured Political Environment and Electoral Governance Challenges

After the local elections on March 24, 2019, Ecuador faces a fractured political environment. Although there are many potential avenues for analysis for how these recent elections reflect Ecuador’s return to a robust democracy, two stand above the rest.

First, questions about the performance of the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) in the subnational elections could influence trust in the institution as it prepares to oversee electoral reforms and the 2021 national elections. Second, the strong level of electoral support towards former President Rafael Correa could redefine the electoral and political dynamics of this South American country as the 2021 national elections approach.

How Votes are Counted, Counts - Credibility and Transparency in the Electoral Processes

Citizens originally questioned the CNE’s reporting after an information blackout following the close runoff in the 2017 presidential election. The race between now-President Lenin Moreno—initially seen as the handpicked successor to President Correa—and Guillermo Lasso played out with razor thin margins. The CNE, whose members have since changed, declined to share official information with citizens as final ballots were counted. Public outrage over the lack of information, fueled in part by rumors in social media, led to weeks of public protests and affected the levels of initial support for the new Moreno administration. 

The March 2019 local elections also played out in a fraught context. Namely, there were an unprecedented number of political organizations and candidates competing for local municipal positions, as well as an ambiguous, first-time voting process where citizens directly elected members of the Citizen Participation and Social Control Council (Consejo de Participación Ciudadana y Control Social, CPCCS - an executive body designed to represent civil society in decision-making processes). These confusing conditions made it difficult for the CNE to establish transparency in the vote counting process and the announcing of official results.

While results in 2019 weren’t as delayed or contentious as those in 2017, candidates and citizens were still critical of delays and a lack of information from the CNE. Waiting for official results from the CNE on the night of the March 24 elections, Mayor-elect of Quito Jorge Yunda stated, “The big losers are the CNE, which dropped the [web] page [portal]; the pollsters, who gave the victory to other [losing] candidates... and those who promoted dirty campaigns.”

Candidates from many political parties and movements expressed dissatisfaction with the CNE’s failure to transmit the official results quickly.  CNE system failures prevented citizens from accessing the results on election night, leading some citizens to recall the CNE’s withholding of information in 2017. The CPCCS results themselves created the most problems. Because of the changes in the way these votes were tallied and the glitches in the CNE’s computer system, results were not dispersed correctly or timely. In an interview the next day, CNE Vice President Enrique Pita stated that the transmission of the initial results was a “failure.”

The CNE has a fundamental role in Ecuador’s ongoing transition as the institution that facilitates citizen participation through the electoral process. Yet the CNE faces continued scrutiny from the public, media and political figures aligned with former President Correa. Its current members must overcome the institution’s politicized past and temporary deficiencies to quickly and transparently communicate electoral information. As the next elections will be a national measure of the country’s return to democracy, it is important that the CNE continues its work to regain credibility and strengthen its capacity.

The Uncertain Future of “Correísmo”

Former-President Rafael Correa and his supporters, including candidates of the newly formed party Revolución Ciudadana (Citizen Revolution, RC) had a stronger than anticipated showing in the recent elections after having split from Alianza PAIS-- Alianza Patria Altiva i Soberana, High and Sovereign Patriotic Alliance, AP.

Since its founding in 2006, Correa had led the AP party to a decade of dominance. Since then, the party split into two factions after the 2017 elections: one that supports current President Moreno but kept its AP affiliation, and another that continues to support former President Correa (Correístas) and his newly formed RC party.

In the 2019 elections, RC wasn’t established as a legal party but presented candidates under the Movimiento Fuerza Compromiso Social (Social Commitment Force Movement). 

The movement didn’t win the mayor’s office in any major cities but did perform well in the capital, Quito; its mayoral candidate, Luisa Maldonado, came in second place with 18.42 percent of votes, and the movement made a decent showing in the Quito Municipal Council, winning nine of the 21 seats. 

Correístas also won two prefecture-level leadership positions in the highly-populated provinces of Pichincha and Manabí. In the Guayas province, Correa’s sister came in second for the highest provincial office, winning 17.42 percent of the votes.  

Unlike most of the many parties and movements in Ecuadorian politics, which are often weak, fractured or only influential at a regional level, this election showed that President Correa has been able to maintain loyal support, even after losing his former party and facing major corruption investigations and other scandals with his closest allies. The new Correísta movement is one of the few that has not needed to form alliances in order to gain substantial voter support.

Final Reflections

Ecuador’s recent elections demonstrate that although the country is still on the path of democratic re-consolidation, its political dynamics remain volatile. Government institutions, like the CNE, are working to prove they can independently, effectively and transparently fulfill their roles.

Ecuadorian voters must be able to trust the legitimacy of their electoral institutions and the results they produce for the country to continue its democratic recovery after a decade of co-option and executive political interference. The new members of the CNE, elected in November 2018, have a long road ahead to reestablish public confidence before the 2021 presidential and legislative elections.

Yet while institutions are rebuilding their legitimacy, so too is former President Correa with his new party. The 2019 elections demonstrated that the former president may be out of office, but his political supporters continue to wield strong influence on the political environment.