Re-Election the Easy Part for Ecuador’s Correa

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa resoundingly won re-election with an unprecedented first-round victory in Sunday’s elections. Running on the Alianza PAÍS (Country Alliance) ticket, Correa took an estimated 54 percent of the vote. His closest challenger, Lucio Gutiérrez, finished with an estimated 31 percent.

Under new electoral rules, a candidate needs either more than 50 percent of the vote, or more than 40 percent with a 10 percent margin over the second-place candidate, to avoid a run-off election. Exit polls also gave Correa a majority — if slimmer than the one he currently enjoys — in the Legislative Assembly, confounding many moderates’ hopes for a parliamentary check on his government.

Both the president and assembly’s new terms last until 2013.

The question now is what to expect from a new Correa administration. Over the past two years, Correa has blended revolutionary rhetoric with the capacity to surprise. But while the president’s election manifesto included pledges on social services, job creation and state transparency, these were rarely the focus of his campaign message, leaving many voters uncertain about his priorities.

“Correa has two agendas left over from his first administration: to complete the process of institutional reform and to confront the economic crisis,” says Adrián Bonilla, a political scientist based in the capital, Quito.

The former agenda could necessitate up to 20 new laws on contested subjects, such as decentralization, while the latter will empty government coffers. Official figures forecast GDP growth at 2.5 percent this year, down from 6.5 percent in 2008. Significantly, the most crucial sector for government revenues — oil — is among the worst-performing. To make up for the shortfall, Correa will continue to push new mining concessions, but the resulting income will arrive only in the medium term.

The shortage of funds may limit Correa’s ambitions for social spending. However, according to Carol Murillo of the government-owned newspaper El Telégrafo, those ambitions may not be as grand as the international media often suggest. “Correa doesn’t have a closed, left-wing mind. I don’t think the government is radical, but rather reformist,” she says. In fact, that lack of radicalism could itself cause trouble for Correa, given the expectations his rise to power raised among the poor and disenfranchised.

Correa recently appeared to rule out turning to the IMF in response to the crisis, stating it would be “a very serious error to resuscitate the IMF.” However, as reserves dwindle, analysts suggest that at some point he may find himself with no other option. Last week’s decision to buy back part of the country’s national debt at a 70 percent discount — after having initially defaulted, on the basis that the loans were illegally contracted — can be interpreted as an attempt to open the doors to international financing.

Relations with the U.S., which have recently been frosty but not hostile, are likely to warm in the near future. Correa and U.S. President Barack Obama have already met amicably at this month’s Americas Summit. Yet the concrete impact of improved relations is unclear. The U.S. military base in Manta is almost certain to close this year as previously announced, and the Correa administration has repeatedly opposed free-trade deals.

Relations with Colombia, meanwhile, are likely to be more contentious. Ill-feeling remains on both sides over the 2008 Colombian air-raid into Ecuadoran territory which killed FARC guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes. That is compounded by concerns over issues of immigration and drug trafficking. Security-focused candidates in the 2010 Colombian presidential elections — such as current defense minister Juan Manuel Santos — may try to score points by cross-border finger pointing. Nonetheless, in Ecuador’s domestic politics, the issue of drug-trafficking remains marginal.

Of all these issues, the economic slowdown remains the one with the most potential to undermine Correa’s popularity and authority. Creating jobs and lowering prices were the centerpieces of Lucio Gutiérrez’s campaign. In the hands of a more credible candidate, they could have mileage.

What remains to be seen is how Correa responds to critical voices, and whether austerity and a friendly relationship with the U.S. lead him to seek more or less confrontation at home and abroad. Shortly after the polls closed, Correa reacted angrily to an interviewer who asked him to reassure those who had voted against him. In the coming weeks, the president’s tone will signal whether his lengthy campaign season, in which Ecuadorians voted six times in under three years, is finally over.


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