Will next month’s election bring Ecuador back from the brink?
In the unprecedented context of the 2023 presidential elections in Ecuador, held on Aug. 20, 2023, a surprising turn of events emerged. The majority of voters rallied behind candidates Luisa González and Daniel Noboa, who advance to the second round election on Oct. 15.
While González’s strong performance was expected from the outset, Noboa’s emergence as a contender overtook other candidates who initially seemed better positioned.
The elections had been marked by controversy from the beginning. They were triggered by President Guillermo Lasso’s unusual “cross death” decree dissolving the National Assembly to avoid his own impeachment. Subsequently, the assassination of candidate Fernando Villavicencio two weeks before the first round of the election profoundly altered the electoral landscape.
González, hailing from the party of former president Rafael Correa, had been poised to potentially secure victory in the first round, with more than 40 percent support and a significant lead over the runner-up. However, the violent incident shifted public sentiment. Her lead shrank, making a first-round win unlikely.
The trajectory of solidarity, posthumous votes, and dissatisfaction with prevailing violence and crime, all stemming from the assassination, unfolded unexpectedly as Election Day approached. Initially, Jan Topic seemed to be the one picking up this support, followed by Christian Zurita, who took over Villavicencio’s position on the ballot. However, in the eleventh hour, Noboa instead emerged as the prominent beneficiary of this shift in support.
After the first-round results, Noboa emerges as the candidate with the most promising prospects for the presidency in the upcoming second round, scheduled for Oct. 15. This is because González’s room for growth on her 34 percent showing remains limited to those supportive of Correa’s former government. Noboa, by contrast, is positioned to secure substantial backing from voters who had initially supported a variety of “anti-Correísmo” candidates.
Meanwhile, the allocation of legislative seats in the first round could set the stage for a divided National Assembly, continuing the governance challenges that plagued Lasso’s ill-fated presidency. This suggests that generating meaningful change on voter priorities will remain elusive, at least in the next 18 months.
While the new election may have temporarily alleviated the pressure stemming from Ecuador’s political and economic crisis, critical decisions will likely be deferred until the next full presidential term following the 2025 elections. Without majorities in the legislature, it will be difficult for the new president to take any major decisions.
In the best-case scenario, this could provide an incentive for politicians to forge agreements as part of a transitional government, which will at the very least address the country’s security problems and guarantee a new democratic transition in 2025.
This is particularly urgent given the rampant violence plaguing the country. It is no coincidence that the campaign season has focused squarely on this issue, a result of the growing power of organized crime throughout the region that was thrown into sharp relief with the murder of Villavicencio. If the situation continues to worsen and there is a sense that politicians are not doing enough to address it, there is a real risk that voters will begin to lose faith in the ability of democratic institutions to cope with this problem.
While the issue of insecurity has eclipsed the social and economic concerns driving popular discontent in recent years, those issues remain an urgent priority. Social protests by indigenous Ecuadorians in 2022 prompted by the rising prices of food and fuel resulted in negotiations with the government. These have since been suspended. It is likely that protests will resume if the transitional government does not take action to address these grievances.
The next president will also urgently need to develop an emergency plan to preemptively address natural disasters anticipated due to the El Niño effect, which is forecast to strike Ecuador by year’s end. This and economic recovery are both areas where the new president’s failure to act decisively could undermine citizens’ confidence in the democratic process.
A comprehensive strategy must be devised to stimulate job creation and rejuvenate the economy, while exercising prudence in managing public debt and exploring mechanisms to ensure sustained fiscal stability in the long run. Success will largely depend on the leadership of the new president, who will be constrained in the number of issues he can spearhead action on without majority support from the National Assembly.
Finally, it is crucial that the new president use his or her 18 months in office to ensure that the 2025 elections are free and fair, without the threat of political violence to candidates or voters.
Ecuador’s atypical electoral process offers an important opportunity for democratic renewal at a challenging time. The country’s security and much more hinges on whether or not the transitional government is able to deliver the compromises needed to bring Ecuador back from the brink.
Miguel Hernandez is the resident program director for Ecuador at the International Republican Institute.