The referendum vote that took place in Ecuador this past Sunday will affect the country’s political future, and also, in at least one way, it’s notion of its own past. The nation’s citizens were called to decide on seven issues of national interest.
As expected, a significant majority of participants in the referendum voted YES on all seven questions, ranging between 63 percent and 74 percent of all votes cast.
Without a doubt, the question that attracted the most attention was No.2, on reelection. This is where the feud between Ecuador’s president Lenín Moreno and his predecessor Rafael Correa come into the picture.
Correa became president in 2007, as his country was emerging from one of the worst political and economic crises in its history. During the 1990s and early 2000s, a series of political leaders sought to modernize Ecuador’s economy by adopting what came to be known as “neoliberal” policies. Essentially, they believed that the country should become competitive by allowing the free market to flourish and take the government out of the way.
But many in Ecuador, a historically poor country with a large Native American population, came to reject these policies. Ecuador was notable for being the birthplace of one of the largest and most influential social movements in the world, a confederation of indigenous groups known as CONAIE. In just under five years, between 2000 and 2005, CONAIE and its allies staged massive popular demonstrations that forced one president after another to resign from their post.
Correa, a PhD-level economist educated in France and the United States, gained the support of CONAIE and Ecuador’s working classes by promising to move the country to the left. He did this by adopting a populist discourse that framed national politics as the conflict between “the people” and the corrupt elites that were the popular enemies. Along with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, Correa became part of a left-leaning triumvirate that saw the United States and international economic organizations as the enemy and sought an alternative path to development and prosperity.
For many years, Correa benefitted from a growing economy, driven by high prices in raw minerals which Ecuador exported to the world market. He was enormously popular among his followers but despised by opponents who charged him with being a danger to democracy. Correa won re-election in 2009 and again in 2013, and in 2015 successfully led a campaign to reform the national constitution, which would allow him to be indefinitely reelected.
As part of the new procedure, Correa was to cede power to a new president and then would be allowed to run again in 2021. Everything seemed to go according to plan. Correa’s vice-president, Lenín Moreno, won the 2017 elections and became Ecuador’s new president. But then things started to change. Moreno and Correa have feuded over the past year, over political and personal differences, with Moreno vowing to turn back many of Correa’s once-popular policies.
Which brings us back to the referendum. A popular vote overturning indefinite reelection is understood not only as a constitutional change but a rejection of Correa himself and, by extension, the many ways in which he has changed Ecuadorian politics and society.
The vote is likely to resonate in other Latin American countries headed by populists and, perhaps, resonate in other parts of the world, including the United States, in which populism has made headway.