Ecuador News Round-Up No. 7: Polls Show González and Noboa Tie as Election Day Nears

October 13, 2023

Sunday’s Presidential Elections

With the runoff of the presidential election just a few days away, recent polls indicate that, as in the first round, the second presidential debate will likely have a strong influence on the final outcome. While pre-debate polls consistently showed the conservative candidate, Daniel Noboa, with a significant lead over his opponent, Luisa González, the landscape has since shifted noticeably.

At least four polls released after the debate all show González making significant gains on Noboa. An October 5 Comunicaliza poll has narrowed the previous 10-point difference to 6.56 points, with Noboa receiving 53.28 percent of the valid vote and González getting 46.72 percent. The remaining three polls predict a statistical tie between the two candidates. According to Ecuador’s electoral rules, polls are considered statistically tied when both candidates are within less than three points of each other. Maluk Research’s poll projects that González will receive 51.1 percent of the valid vote and Noboa 48.9 percent. Meanwhile, Telcodata and Negocios y Estrategias each assigned 50.2 percent of the valid vote to Noboa.

In addition to these polls, Cálculo Electoral, an independent research project, took the weighted arithmetic mean of 19 polls since August 20 and predicted that González has a 55 percent chance of winning the election, while Noboa has a 45 percent chance of doing so.

Sunday’s elections will also define the final balance of power in the National Assembly, Ecuador’s legislature. As it stands, the Revolución Ciudadana, Luisa González’s party, is the largest party in the forthcoming legislature, with approximately 48 out of 137 seats. The Construye Movement, which backed Fernando Villavicencio and then his replacement, Christian Zurita, came in second, with 28 seats. The conservative Social Christian Party and Daniel Noboa’s ADN movement came in third and fourth, with 14 and 13 seats, respectively. Negotiations between the parties to form alliances, even a majority, within the National Assembly are reportedly at a standstill, as the political forces are waiting to know who will become president. 

The collapse of the electronic voting platform for the Ecuadorian diaspora on the day of the August 20 elections, which left a majority of Ecuadorian migrants unable to vote, also means the presidential runoff will be accompanied by a new vote abroad. The National Electoral Council (CNE), Ecuador’s electoral body, eventually recognized that the electronic voting platform had collapsed and agreed to rerun the vote for the six legislative seats representing Ecuadorians abroad. The CNE also established that both the presidential and legislative elections held abroad would be conducted in person.

 Several weeks after Luisa González released her campaign’s financial statements for the first round, announcing she had received $200,000 in donations, Daniel Noboa finally disclosed his own campaign funding. Documents show that $445,000 in donations went to Noboa, including $190,000 from his own pocket and the remainder mainly from business people.

New Questions About Links Between Daniel Noboa and the Lasso Government

Noboa’s confirmation during the second presidential debate that Bernardo Manzano, Lasso’s former minister of agriculture, worked as a manager for the Noboa Group, the large Ecuadorian conglomerate owned by the candidate’s family, has made somewhat of a splash on social networks and in the media. 

Entangled in the corruption investigations surrounding Lasso, Manzano resigned from his post as minister of agriculture in February, after admitting that, prior to his ministerial appointment, he had given his CV to Rubén Cherres. A “fixer” for Danilo Carrera, Guillermo Lasso’s brother-in-law and main business associate, Cherres is suspected of running a cash-for-appointments scheme and fake contracts in the energy sector for his boss, Carrera. Cherres, wanted by police for questioning about government corruption, was found dead — murdered — on March 31.

On September 29, Rodney Rangel, the police officer in charge of investigating the links between Danilo Carrera and the “Albanian mafia” as part of the “León de Troya case,” posted a video on social media detailing more information about the investigation. Rangel said that, after the case was controversially shelved, he had to flee the country because of the threats to his life. The police officer also claims that Cherres had appointed Manzano, someone with extensive experience in the banana business as a result of his work for the Noboa Group, as minister of agriculture in order to facilitate drug trafficking out of Ecuador by increasing the quota of banana exports for certain exporters, including the Noboa Group. Drugs would then be smuggled in banana shipments.

In a subsequent press conference, Rangel stated that this was done at the request of the “Albanian mafia” in return for their help financing Lasso’s presidential campaign. He further alleged that Manzano followed through, raising the quota and giving out export permits, which increased the amount of drugs ending up in Europe. Indeed, the Associated Press reports that “European authorities have made record-setting busts after inspecting containers carrying bananas from Ecuador….Of last year’s total, a record 47.5 metric tons of cocaine were found in shipments of bananas.”

Manzano’s frequent employment in the Noboa business conglomerate over several decades and his ministerial role certainly establish a potential link between the Lasso government’s alleged corruption and the Noboa Group. The fact that bananas have become one of the main conduits for the export of cocaine from Ecuador has only made the optics of all this more problematic for Noboa. But it remains unclear whether these growing rumors, which are yet to gain significant traction in the media, will have a real impact on election day. 

The Financial Times has also begun to ask questions about Noboa’s potential conflicts of interest were he to win the presidency. In a recent article, the FT details the legal dispute in British courts, as well as in courts abroad, between the candidate’s father, Álvaro Noboa, a banana magnate and one of Ecuador’s wealthiest men, and certain members of his family. These family members claim they are owed money in relation to a 2010 settlement that bought them out of their interest in the family business. If these family members are successful in London, the case is reportedly likely to go to Ecuador for enforcement, which according to the FT and an analyst interviewed by the outlet, “would test Noboa’s willingness as president to refrain from interfering in an Ecuadorian court process that could risk him losing his inheritance or seeing his father’s business liquidated.”

Irregularities in the Investigation of Fernando Villavicencio’s Assassination

The Prosecutor General’s office preliminary investigation into the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio drew to a close on October 8. 

Two days before the preliminary investigation’s official closing, six Colombian men suspected of involvement in the assassination of Villavicencio were killed in the Penitenciaría del Litoral prison in Guayaquil. A day later, on October 7, an additional suspect in Villavicencio’s killing was murdered in the El Inca prison in Quito. This resulted in a restructuring of the highest ranks of Ecuador’s security apparatus, with the heads of the police, the police investigations unit, and the SNAI, the country’s prison authority, being fired by Lasso. Furthermore, an investigation into the SNAI’s failure to carry out a pending prisoner transfer order, issued for security reasons for all six suspects before their deaths, has been launched. Ecuador’s penitentiary system has essentially collapsed over the last few years, with over 430 homicides and frequent massacres taking place inside prison walls since 2021.

On October 8, the day the preliminary investigation ended, the prosecutor general announced it had received testimony from an unidentified “protected witness” who allegedly disclosed the sum of money offered to the hitmen and identified the individuals responsible for planning and ordering the assassination. However, since the witness testimony came after the end of the preliminary investigation, it will not be part of the investigation’s report, which reportedly does not include information on those responsible for planning the attack. Instead, it will serve as the foundation for a new investigation into those behind the assassination.

Shortly after the Prosecutor General’s office announcement of the witness testimony, Christian Zurita, Villavicenco’s close friend and replacement as presidential candidate, took to X, formally Twitter, claiming to have received advanced access to the testimony, which according to him blamed “the Correa government” [sic] for Villavicencio’s assassination. Verónica Sarauz, Villavicencio’s widow, also blamed former president Correa. Primicias has reported that the witness, a member of a local gang headed by Laura Dayanara C.V., a key suspect in the case, was allegedly privy to the payments, planning, and identities of those behind the crime, even though he ultimately did not participate in it. The witness himself is reportedly not a suspect. 

The reasons and means by which Sarauz and especially Zurita, whose phone the Prosecutor General’s office will examine as part of the investigation, obtained advanced access to the testimony remains unclear, though a leak on the part of Diana Salazar, the prosecutor general, who has intervened in past elections, is not out of the question. 

Former president Rafael Correa, who has lived in Belgium since 2017 and was granted asylum there in 2022, has denied any involvement in the killing and has denounced the accusations as a ploy to weaken correísmo in Sunday’s elections. Similar accusations in the first round had had a detrimental impact on the Gonzalez-Arauz ticket.

Significantly, although the Prosecutor General’s office put out a statement warning against “false information” regarding the investigation, it has not labeled Sarauz and Zurita’s comments as incorrect. The Office of the Prosecutor General also warned of the legal consequences of revealing the witness’ identity, which appears to have been leaked by the judiciary when it published procedural documents concerning the case on a public database of court documents. 

It is important to note that the assassination of Villavicencio, who was under police protection, took place amidst significant deficiencies in his security protocol. The most recent accusations of negligence come from the head officer responsible for the candidate’s security, who alleges that the police high command ignored around 100 of his safety-related requests. 

With 88 reported cases of political violence, this year’s vote also occurs in the context of the deadliest election in Ecuadorian history, according to a recent report by the Citizen Observatory of Political Violence. Luisa González’s Revolución Ciudadana has not been spared. It suffered 17 percent of these attacks, the largest share of violence against any political party, while the share of violence directed at Noboa’s party, the ADN movement, stands at 2 percent. 

A final irregularity in the investigation involves Fernando Villavicencio’s phone. Christian Zurita and the candidate’s family have been adamantly against sharing the contents of the device with police investigators, claiming there is sensitive material on it that could be leaked and affect the deceased’s “honor.” Less than two days before the preliminary investigation concluded, Ecuadorian media reported that the Prosecutor General’s office had still not received Villavicencio’s phone. Varying stories of where it may be found, if at all, have been circulated by the family. This has led some to question the validity of any conclusions drawn from an investigation that does not include an examination of the victim’s phone.

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