Ecuador vote shows contrasting roles of political parties and social movements
An electoral official shows the ballot for a presidential election in Ayora, Ecuador, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. The election was called after President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly by decree in May to avoid being impeached. | Dolores Ochoa / AP

On Aug. 20 in Ecuador, 45-year-old lawyer Luisa González of the Citizen’s Revolution movement political party (RC) gained 33.6% of the votes in first-round balloting for eight presidential candidates. Second-place candidate Daniel Noboa of the National Democratic Action, a 35-year-old businessman and political neophyte, took 23.4% of the vote. González and Noboa will be competing in second-round voting on Oct. 15.

As for the elections to the National Assembly, the RC accounted for 39.4% of the votes, three other parties for 45% of those votes, and five smaller parties for the remaining ballots.

The voters also considered referendums, one on halting oil extraction from Ecuador’s huge Yasuní National Park and the other on prohibiting mining activities in a biosphere region northeast of Quito. The referendums were approved by 59% and 68% of the voters, respectively.

The circumstances were unusual. Two processes played out on parallel tracks and culminated together. These were political parties taking part in elections and social movements pursuing referendums. Contradictions emerged along with the promise of troubles ahead and signs of commitment and hope.

The new president will serve only the 18 months that remain in the term of Guillermo Lasso, elected in 2021 for a five-year term. When confronted with impeachment proceedings in May 2023 on corruption charges, Lasso dissolved the National Assembly and thereby, as provided by the Constitution, set in motion preparations for a new election and his own departure.

Nationwide Indigenous protests in 2022 accelerated the transition now taking place amidst violence attributed to narco-trafficking that took 4,671 lives during the past year. The election campaign itself provoked killings, those of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, a legislator, journalist, and labor leader; the mayor of Manta, Agustín Intriago, and others.

The Citizen’s Revolution movement political party, represented by presidential candidate Luisa González, defends policies of social assistance and national development introduced under the leadership of former President Rafael Correa during his tenure from 2007 to 2017. The CR took shape in reaction to the neoliberal turn taken by the government of Lenin Moreno, Correa’s former vice president and successor.

Its predecessor party, under Correa’s democratic-socialist leadership, managed the national economy so as to preserve funds for social programs through reliance on petroleum exports and foreign credit. The RC led left-leaning forces in opposing the neoliberal government of Guillermo Lasso, in power since 2021.

With his second-place finish in the recent voting, candidate Daniel Noboa surpassed expectations, due in part to a stellar TV debate performance. He represents wealth and power. His father, a five-time presidential candidate, and his uncle preside over an agro-export and real estate conglomerate made up of 200 business entities. They owe the government $1 billion in back taxes.

Now campaigning for the second round of presidential elections, RC candidate González would seem to differ greatly from the prince of such an empire. “We are going to deal with the basic causes of violence and criminality which are hunger, poverty, lack of education, and the absence of opportunity,” she noted as she was accepting her party’s nomination.

But all is not as it appears. The positions taken by the various presidential candidates on the referendums were revealing. Only four of the eight candidates unambiguously supported the Yasuní referendum; three of them represented right-wing parties. Noboa justified leaving oil underground based on his conclusion that the financial yield is low and that over-reliance on oil exports impedes diversification of the economy.

The Correa-inspired RC movement and its candidate Gonzalez rejected the Yasuní referendum. Previous governments, governments headed by Correa in particular, took the position that income from oil exports is crucial to continued funding of social advances.

The contrast between approval at the polls shown for the candidates of political parties and for approval of the referendums was striking─33.6% and 23.4%, respectively, versus 68% and 59%, respectively. One set of the voting results testified to activists’ enthusiasm and commitment.

Approval of the two referendums reflects the advocacy and hard work of environmentalists, Indigenous activists, and supporters of women’s rights. According to “The vote marks a triumph for the country’s grassroots anti-extractivist, ecological, and Indigenous movements, whose road to victory comes from a decade of social and political conflicts over extractive industry policies.”

Journalist Gabriela Barzallo surveys collective efforts toward restraining oil extraction. Highlighting the persistent participation of social movements, she quotes Ecuadorian sociologist Gregorio Páez:

“This upcoming referendum … serves as an inspiration for all Ecuadorians to have the agency to decide over our natural resources, and to empower people to see that grassroots activism really can have changes in policies.”

Páez sees activism in Ecuador as “inspiring social movements on a global scale.”

Analyst Santiago Kingman explores the impact of social movements on the elections:

“The triumph of the social movements is understood as a positive response from cities and areas far removed from the oil-producing world. At least 59% of Ecuador’s citizens…are alienated from the electoral system and political parties and say they have another way of doing politics. Those who voted for Noboa [who favored the referendum’s approval] are against politics, but they are not anti-capitalists. The social organizations behind the referendums are anti-capitalists and are anti-political parties.”

Social movements have shaped political resistance throughout Latin America, in some countries more than others. They flourish, it seems, in situations of grief at the hands of international capitalism. Resonating there is contention over control of land and sub-soil resources, provision of energy, debt owed to foreign creditors, and prescriptions for domestic economies from abroad.

Capitalist-oriented political parties, often enablers of foreign predators, offer little resistance. Social movements active in Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, and now Ecuador have partially filled the void. Social movements operating in conjunction with anti-capitalist governments have different job descriptions.

Imaginings lead to speculation about an expanded role for social movements in the capitalist powerhouse nations. One recalls U.S. labor uprisings in the 1930s and the civil rights movement that peaked a few decades later.

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W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.