September 12, 2023
With 100 percent of the votes counted in Ecuador’s presidential elections, the results are both surprising and in line with anticipated outcomes. As expected, Luisa González of the Revolución Ciudadana (RC) party came in first place, though her share of the vote was lower than what was predicted 10 days before the elections. An August 10 Comunicaliza poll, using data collected just before the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio on August 9, projected that González would secure 31 percent of the total vote (40 percent of the valid vote). A subsequent August 12 poll lowered González’s share to 25 percent of the total vote (31 percent of the valid vote). With a final tally of 33 percent of the valid vote in the first round, the RC candidate’s result was significantly impacted by Villavicencio’s assassination, among other factors explained below.
The runner-up also came as a surprise to many observers. Daniel Noboa of the Acción Democrática Nacional (ADN) movement — the wealthy son of banana magnate Álvaro Noboa, Ecuador’s famous billionaire and five-time unsuccessful presidential candidate — secured 23 percent of the vote after polling at 3.3 percent just days before the presidential debate, according to Comunicaliza. Noboa is a conservative, pro-business candidate whose running mate, Verónica Abad, has expressed support for Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and the far-right Spanish political party Vox. Both candidates will head to a run-off election on October 15.
Analysts have attributed Daniel Noboa’s unforeseen success to a range of factors. Many have tied his electoral finish to his performance in the presidential debate, where he stood out by avoiding confrontation and focusing on policy. Noboa’s description of himself as a “Noboist,” rather than as an anticorreísta, also transcends the correísmo/anticorreísmo dichotomy that has dominated Ecuadorian politics for the last 15 years, but appears to be running out of steam — particularly among young voters with little recollection of the Rafael Correa decade or what came before it. Furthermore, Noboa’s image as an “outsider,” despite his prior role as a member of the National Assembly and his belonging to Ecuador’s richest family, capitalized on the rising tide of antiestablishment politics.
After his successful debate appearance, Noboa scaled up his campaign on social networks, and on Facebook especially, with large-scale spending on micro-segmented ads, particularly targeting young voters.
The news of the murder of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, according to certain observers, also meant that significant numbers of undecided voters — who might otherwise have voted for González and the RC — decided against it, in the context of an intensification of anticorreísta discourse, including in the media, that helped to boost Noboa.
Luisa González’s first-place result demonstrates that she has been able to retain the core base of correísmo. With 33 percent of the vote, González’s performance narrowly exceeds that of her running mate, Andrés Arauz, who received 32 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2021 presidential elections.
González has also expanded the territorial reach of correísmo support to key highland provinces, crucially coming in first place in Pichincha province, which includes the capital city, Quito. González also won three of Ecuador’s six Amazonian provinces, which had been hostile to correísmo in the last few years. These advances are crucial for RC because correísmo’s backing had recently primarily shifted to the coastal lowlands. This was evident in the first round of the 2021 elections, when Arauz won coastal provinces but failed to come in first place in either the highlands or the Amazon, despite hailing from the highlands himself.
Nevertheless, González’s victory in coastal provinces fell below expectations — a result of Noboa’s capture of “soft” correísta votes, a key pillar of his strategy that seeks to attract people who do not identify as correístas but who may be nostalgic for various aspects of Correa’s presidency.
Although a 10-point difference separates González and Noboa in the first round, the second round is far from decided. In 2021, Arauz had a 13-point lead over Guillermo Lasso in the first round, but lost the runoff. The bulk of third-place candidate Christian Zurita’s support is likely to go to Noboa. Zurita represents a hardcore anticorreismo, and from the perspective of his supporters, Noboa appears to be the lesser of two evils. Zurita has actually refrained from explicitly endorsing Noboa, though he has urged his supporters to vote against González and to avoid protest votes, i.e., blank ballots.
Fourth-place candidate Jan Topic, with 14 percent of the vote in the first round, has been more forthright about supporting Noboa, and the Social Christian Party (PSC), one of the parties that supported the Topic ticket, has endorsed Noboa. It remains to be seen how the bulk of Topic voters will vote in the runoff. Not unlike Noboa, Topic has attempted to evade the correísta/anticorreísta divide, until, accused of being a correísta by the Zurita camp, he began distancing himself from that association by attacking the Correa legacy.
Given Topic’s policy proposals, which some observers have described as a Salvadoran president “Bukele-style” anti-crime platform, his supporters may be more swayed by security promises than by other political considerations. On this issue, the RC may have somewhat of an advantage, given the memory of Correa’s successful security policies. Noboa therefore lost no time in courting Topic, offering to discuss security with him.
The main Indigenous movement, CONAIE, has meanwhile officially declared that they will refrain from endorsing a candidate until days before the election. They say they are waiting to hear what positions the candidates have on the CONAIE agenda before making a decision.
The more conservative and predominantly Indigenous Pachakutik party has also announced that it will not endorse a candidate. Pachakutik remains deeply divided, including regarding the legitimacy of its leadership, and its recurrent parliamentary support for conservative presidents Lenín Moreno and Guillermo Lasso in the years since the Correa administration have significantly weakened its standing with the electorate. Its 2021 presidential candidate, Yaku Pérez, did poorly in the first round of these elections, with less than four percent of valid votes, and Pachakutik’s poor performance in the legislative elections, is, at least in part, a result of the party’s flailing legitimacy.
Looking Ahead to the Runoff
A September 4 Comunicaliza poll put Noboa close to 55 percent of the valid vote, with González at 45 percent. But, with elections over a month away and close to 13 percent of voters still undecided, the outcome is impossible to predict. Noboa’s meteoric ascent in the polls in the week before the first round is a reminder of the volatility of Ecuadorian elections, in which undecided voters, in the context of compulsory voting, play a crucial, often last-minute role.
It is significant that the González-Arauz ticket was the only one of the eight presidential tickets in which both presidential and vice presidential candidates were actually members of the endorsing party. None of the other seven presidential candidates are members of the parties backing their bids, a vivid illustration of the fragility of a political system characterized by parties for hire.
The RC’s strategic focus appears to be to chip away at Daniel Noboa’s outsider legitimacy, emphasizing that he is the son of an oligarch and banana magnate and that a vote for Noboa is a vote for the Noboa family and emporium. The RC is also trying to draw strong parallels between a possible future Noboa presidency and the unpopular Moreno and Lasso governments, especially since the parties that endorsed Lasso in 2021 are the same ones supporting Noboa in this runoff.
Ecuadorians also voted in legislative elections on August 20. After tallying all the votes – except those cast for the six seats representing Ecuadorian residents abroad (for reasons explained below), correístas, through the RC, have reemerged as the dominant force in the National Assembly with 48 out of 137 seats so far. This is already one more seat than in the 2021 elections, and with a do-over of elections for the six diaspora legislative seats, the RC is expected to obtain a total of 51 to 53 seats.
The Construye Movement, which backed Fernando Villavicencio and then his replacement, Christian Zurita, came in second, with 28 seats. The traditional Social Christian Party (PSC) and Daniel Noboa’s ADN movement came in third and fourth, with 14 and 13 seats, respectively.
A big loser in this legislative election was Pachakutik, the Indigenous party, which saw its seats decrease from 27 in 2021 — the second-largest legislative bloc — to just four in 2023. Pachakutik’s weakness has, in large part, been the result of internal conflicts stemming from the party’s support for the Lasso government, issues of contending leadership, and a growing split between the party and its social movement base, the CONAIE.
Another important loser in the parliamentary elections was Izquierda Democrática (ID), which dropped from 18 seats in 2021 to none in the 2023 National Assembly, also largely as a consequence of its support for the Lasso government. Given the president’s unpopularity, CREO, Guillermo Lasso’s party, opted not to field candidates in these elections — yet another example of the fickle and volatile nature of Ecuadorian party politics.
The results did not give any party a National Assembly majority. González would have to make up roughly 20 votes to get legislation passed; Noboa would need nearly 60.
Problems with Ecuador’s Migrant Vote and the Rescheduling of Elections
Ecuador, a country with a substantial diaspora living abroad, affords its nationals the right to vote from their country of residence. Ecuadorian migrants voted in the general elections electronically, via an online platform set up by the National Electoral Council (CNE), the country’s electoral body. Once voting began, however, social media platforms were flooded with posts from Ecuadorians abroad reporting major problems with the voting platform or who were simply unable to vote. The CNE remained silent for hours and even claimed that reports of hackings and connection issues were false, and that voting was proceeding normally. By nightfall, after voting had ended, CNE President Diana Atamaint was forced to admit that the online platform had failed to guarantee the right to vote. She also claimed the platform suffered cyberattacks from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Russia, Ukraine, Indonesia, and China. Figures reported by the CNE show that only 51,623 of 123,880 people who registered to vote from abroad on the electronic platform were able to cast their votes.
In preliminary reports, various international electoral observation missions (EOMs) have said that electronic voting was the biggest issue in the elections. The Organization of American States (OAS) EOM reported that it had received numerous complaints about online voting and urged the CNE to “address these complaints and resolve them expeditiously,” adding that the body’s refuting of citizens’ complaints “reduced confidence in this voting system.” An OAS EOM report from Ecuador’s February 2023 referendum had warned of problems with the electronic voting system early on.
Citizens and various parties, including the RC, began asking for a revote for migrants abroad. On August 25, the CNE’s Special Board for Votes from Abroad annulled the result of the elections in all foreign constituencies. Following the board’s decision, the CNE announced that elections for the six diaspora seats in the National Assembly would be rescheduled for October 15, coinciding with the second round of the presidential elections, but that neither the presidential elections nor the Yasuní referendum would be repeated. According to the CNE, it is mathematically impossible for the diaspora vote to affect the outcome of the first round of the presidential elections or the result of the referendum. Voting rules have also been altered to allow only for in-person voting on October 15.
Prior to agreeing to reschedule the vote from abroad, the National Assembly inauguration had been scheduled for October 26, while the presidential inauguration was originally set for November 30. However, as a result of the revote, the swearing-in of the National Assembly may be delayed, likely until December, which would also delay the presidential inauguration and thus extend Lasso’s rule.
With 30 to 70 percent of ballots counted before the external vote was annulled, Construye and the RC were each projected to win three of the six diaspora seats. Construye, not anticipating the level of success it achieved, opposed the revote. The party officially challenged the CNE’s decision, arguing that it was illegal, that a revote based on the CNE’s negligence was unconstitutional, and that their seats would be in jeopardy since votes were likely to benefit the parties still in the presidential race.
Many questions remain about what really happened with the online voting platform. The CNE has blamed Antroproyectos S.C., the private firm it hired for technical support, for not responding to the CNE or to citizen requests and for not implementing necessary measures to safeguard the election’s integrity. But doubts persist regarding the CNE’s account of events. For instance, the CNE’s report on the incidents states that the origin and nature of the cyber attacks on the online platform are unknown, even though the CNE’s president had previously identified the countries from which the attacks supposedly originated. There is also the fact that Antroproyectos S.C. was the sole company to submit a bid during the CNE’s contracting process for the online vote. Puzzlingly, the contractor was deemed compliant with the CNE’s requirements, despite lacking the necessary experience and capacity for the work involved. The CNE has not provided more information on what happened with the vote.
As a result of these doubts, the National Anticorruption Commission has called on the Comptroller General to audit and investigate the CNE. CNE member María Elena Nájera has also asked the Comptroller General to review the body’s contracting process for technical assistance with the diaspora vote. And, the RC has submitted a criminal complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office, requesting that it investigate the elections abroad.
Ecuadorians voted on two referendums on August 20, in addition to the presidential and legislative elections. The first asked Quito residents if they wished to ban mining in the Chocó Andino, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve west of the city home to 12 current mining projects. The “yes” vote garnered over 68 percent on all four questions, resulting in a ban on mining in the area. It is important to note that the Constitutional Court established that the referendum does not apply retroactively, however. The president of the Ecuadorian Mining Chamber and the minister of energy have therefore already announced that 11 of the 12 existing operations are permitted to continue their activities. Any new concessions, or those currently in the processing stage, however, will not be permitted to go forward.
The second referendum, which has been dubbed the “Yasuní referendum,” asked Ecuadorian citizens whether oil extraction should be prohibited in extraction block 43 ITT, the majority of which is located within the Yasuní National Park in the Amazon. Despite technical issues with the question posed, the referendum passed. Fifty-nine percent of Ecuadorians ultimately decided to prohibit extraction.
However, in Orellana province, where block 43 ITT is located, 58 percent voted in favor of extraction, resulting in a heated debate over the result’s legality. Fernando Santos Alvite, the minister of energy, contends that Article 57 of the Constitution, which states that Indigenous people have the right to free and informed consultations before decisions regarding resource extraction within their territories are made, should be applied. Alvite went on to declare that extraction in block 43 ITT would continue regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
Several constitutional lawyers differ with this view and argue that Article 57 only serves as a mechanism for local participation. They contend that since the Yasuní referendum’s scope is national — as determined by the Constitutional Court when it approved the vote — Article 57 is not applicable in this case. The government has since walked back Santos Alvite’s remarks and declared its commitment to honoring the referendum’s outcome.
State-run oil company Petroecuador now has one year to cease operations in block 43 ITT, a task the company says will require more than a year to complete — a claim the Constitutional Court will have to assess.
Threats Against Journalists
On July 25, Andersson Boscán, a journalist for the La Posta news outlet – and a protagonist of the corruption allegations against Lasso that prompted the impeachment process – fled Ecuador after receiving death threats. In January, Boscán and La Posta accused Danilo Carrera, Guillermo Lasso’s brother-in-law and main business associate, of a cash-for-appointments scheme and fake contracts in the energy sector. These allegedly involved a close associate of Carrera, a “fixer” named Rubén Cherres, who is believed to have overseen these schemes. By February, the Prosecutor General announced an investigation into Lasso’s alleged blocking of a police investigation into Cherres’ dealings with a narcotrafficking organization. On March 31, after several months on the run from the police, Cherres, a key witness to the potential links between the Lasso government and organized crime, was found murdered.
Boscán has said the threats against his life are related to his accusations against Carrera and Lasso. He asserts that his investigative team discovered photos on a phone purportedly belonging to Cherres, which had been recovered at the scene of the murder. Boscán says the photos show “everything an assassin needs” to plan an attack on him (Boscán) and his family, with pictures of his home, office, car, security personnel, and usual routes. The journalist further claims that the government and Prosecutor General made the conscious decision not to initiate an investigation, nor to inform him and his team, despite their knowledge of the pictures.
Furthermore, Boscán has released leaked audio messages in which Cherres talks about him and what should be done about him, in addition to referring to “Toni,” a man from the “Albanian mafia,” and floating the idea that bloodshed may be needed to command respect. Cherres can be heard saying, “What do we do about this, brother, the thing with Fernando …” likely alluding to Fernando Villavicencio, the assassinated presidential candidate who had spoken to La Posta days before it published its investigation into Danilo Carrera. Both the Lasso government and the Office of the Prosecutor General have protested Boscán’s accusations and denied that the journalist was being persecuted. But Boscán’s claims have made headlines in Ecuador and are a further blow to President Lasso’s crumbling credibility.
Ecuador’s security situation continues to spiral downward ahead of the October 15 elections. Over the past week, criminal organizations have carried out bombing campaigns across the country, seemingly in response to the government’s August 30 transfer of gang members and leaders to different prisons, as well as raids on prisons largely under the influence of the Los Lobos gangs.
Two car bombs exploded in Quito, one targeting the current offices of the Ecuadorian prison authority, and the other in the vicinity of its former offices. Another bomb damaged a bridge in the province of El Oro. Explosions have also been reported in Cuenca and the Amazonian province of Napo. Some 50 prison guards and 7 police officers were taken hostage in multiple prisons on August 31, but have since been liberated.
After receiving credible death threats, presidential candidate Luisa González has decided to wear a bulletproof vest on the campaign trail and has accepted the government’s offer of military protection, which she had previously declined. One individual has been arrested for alleged involvement in an assassination plot against González.
The number of violent deaths in Ecuador reached approximately 4,835 by the end of August — already 4 percent higher than the total homicides in 2022, which had set the record for the deadliest year in Ecuador’s history. The wave of violence claimed the life of yet another politician this month, Bolívar Vera. A member of the PSC, Vera served as a councilor in Durán. He was kidnapped on September 7, and his lifeless body was found the following morning on the side of a road.