The people of Ecuador are rising up to refound their country as a pluri-national homeland for all. This inspiring movement, with Ecuador's indigenous peoples at its heart, is part of the revolution spreading across the Americas, laying the groundwork for a new, fairer, world. Ecuador Rising aims to bring news and analysis of events unfolding in Ecuador to english speakers.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Refounding Ecuador: Style and Substance in the Citizens’ Revolution

Memorandum for the Left Turns Conference, UBC-SFU, Vancouver, May 22-24, 2007

Catherine M. Conaghan, Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University

From Left Turns?

Ruminating in August 2006, Francis Fukuyama portrayed Chavismo as a unique phenomenon, more an oil-induced aberration than inspiring example of Latin America’s Left Turn. Echoing the argument made by Jorge Castañeda, Fukuyama pointed to the notable presence of pragmatic and democratically-minded presidents on the left in the rest of Latin America. He opined: “Chavismo is not Latin America’s future – if anything, it is its past.”1

Five months later, on January 15, 2007, President Rafael Correa was inaugurated as Ecuador’s president. Flanked by Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales at ceremonial events, the charismatic Correa vowed to put an end to the “long and sad night of neoliberalism” and pledged to lead a Revolución Ciudadana. Hoisting a replica of Bolívar’s sword during his first presidential address, Correa recalled the chant so often heard during his campaign: Alerta, alerta, alerta que camina la espada de Bolívar por América Latina. In blissful defiance of Fukuyama’s relegation of Chavismo to the trash bin of history, Rafael Correa embarked on his political future in an open embrace (literal and figurative) of the Venezuelan president and his beloved Bolivarian ideology.2

Since his inauguration, Rafael Correa has been an unstoppable force. By any measure, he is Ecuador’s Phenom---perhaps the most remarkable president since the transition to civilian rule in 1979. Almost every day, Correa grabs headlines with announcements about new social spending programs or his verbal smack-downs of opponents. After a battle with congressional opponents that left key institutions (congress, the electoral tribunal, the constitutional tribunal) in a legal Twilight Zone, Correa delivered on his principal campaign promise: a consulta popular on convoking a constituent assembly with “full powers”(plenos poderes) to write a new constitution. Not surprisingly, Correa rightfully laid claim to a sweeping victory on April 15, 2007 when 82 percent of all voters cast ballots approving the assembly. Elections for the constituent assembly are scheduled to take place on September 30, 2007, with the body to begin work in mid-November. Thus, Ecuador follows in the footsteps of Venezuela and Bolivia, countries that looked to constitutional restructuring as a means of “refounding” the republics.

Even before his electoral victory in November 2006, Correa’s critics fixed on comparing Correa with Chávez.3 Correa’s first hundred days in office did nothing to dampen enthusiasm for the comparisons. Along with his tenacious pursuit of the constituent assembly, Correa has given foreign policy a nationalist make-over and taken up the cause of creating “21st century socialism” (a term used by Chávez in his 2007 inaugural address). With the constituent assembly months away from its election and the dog days of constitution writing in Montecristi, it would be premature to draw definitive conclusions about where Ecuador’s Left Turn is headed. The same can be said about the comparisons with Chávez, which may turn out to be wildly off the mark, chillingly prescient or somewhere in between.4 As analysts of the Latin America’s Left Turn, one of our challenges is to delve deeply into the similarities and differences across countries, with the larger goal of assessing how meaningful the Left Turn has been in each of its national manifestations. At the same time, we should remain modest and mindful of the fact that it will take time before the new public policies (e.g., constitutional reforms, changes in electoral rules, social welfare and economic initiatives) yield measurable results.

Keeping the recent and still evolving state of the Ecuadorian experience in mind, I will offer some abbreviated observations about the style and substance of Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution, especially in regard to its prospective impact on the party system and political culture. As both past and recent studies show, Ecuador’s party system is characterized by high levels of fragmentation and electoral volatility.5 The fractious party system, in conjunction with emergence of more contentious, movement-centric politics, fuelled recurrent governability crises and profoundly eroded democratic institutionality as evidenced in the irregular removal of three presidents (Abdalá Bucaram, Jamil Mahuad, and Lucio Gutiérrez) from 1997 to 2005. Thus, for the proposed Revolución Ciudadana to be successful in breaking with the multiple “pathologies” of the past (i.e., lack of party discipline, lack of ideological/programmatic coherence, clientelism, personalism, instrumentalism in regard to institutions, etc.), parties and their formas de hacer política must be drastically overhauled. Here are two sets of questions that strike me as important in this realm: 1) Will Correa’s political ascendance result in a significant reconfiguration of the party system and will it strengthen Ecuadorian democracy? 2) Will Correa’s leadership and the political organizations supportive of the Revolución Ciudadana advance the development of a robust public sphere and a democratic political culture?

Admittedly, the questions above are broad brushstrokes for inquiry. Lurking inside these questions is the prickly matter of what kind of democracy Ecuadorians really want, and the values and criteria that we use as social scientists to pass judgement on democratic development. Like Venezuela, Ecuador may soon find itself caught in the debate: procedural democracy v. democracy as popular sovereignty.6 Surveys have already shown that Ecuadorians want the assembly to be a platform for generating concrete solutions to problems like unemployment. How these aspirations for substance will mix with other aspects of constitution writing, like the design of institutions, await resolution in Montecristi.

This “Magic Moment”: Consolidating the Left Turn in the Party System?

Correa built his presidential victory around a widespread popular rejection of “traditional” parties. Correa carefully crafted his candidacy as an outsider and enacted the part. At campaign rallies, he brandished a belt as the crowd invited him to “Dale Correa” (Hit ‘em Correa---a symbolic smack down of the corrupt political class) and boogied to a re-interpretation of the Twisted Sister anthem, “We’re Not Going to Take It.”

Correa’s disdain for parties and congress knew no bounds and he showed it by running without a list of congressional candidates. It was a risky, but ultimately rewarding, political decision. By running without a congressional list, Correa distinguished his candidacy from others, and unequivocally identified his campaign with the push for a constituent assembly. Given that his opponents controlled congress in January 2007 (most notably Alvaro Noboa’s PRIAN and Lucio Gutiérrez’s PSP), it was obvious that Correa’s presidency would ride on his ability to break down and/or ignore whatever institutional opposition stood in the way of the constituent assembly. Public opinion polls gave the advantage to Correa. At the start of his presidency, Correa enjoyed an impressive 71 percent approval rating in contrast to congress’s 90 percent disapproval rating.

The convoluted conflict that ensued between Correa and opponents of the constituent assembly cannot be explained in its entirety here (For an overview, see Table 1). What is important to note is that Correa was not only able to win the conflict, but that significant collateral damage was inflicted on the opposition as a result; it accelerated the disarray and decomposition of the rightist and populist political forces (PRIAN, PSP, and PSC). The episode clearly revealed these post-election political organizations to be “parliamentary” vehicles in the worst sense--- that is, as gaggles of legislators with no effective leaders or capacity to mobilize expressions of public support for their side. Will the sting of their profound failure kick start some process of re-thinking and modernizing the right in Ecuador? Business leaders, feeling decidedly left out of the Correa administration, hope so. If it does, the recasting of the right could be one of the more salubrious effects of the Left Turn, albeit an unintended one.

Correa has referred to the electoral process underway for the constituent assembly as “this magic moment.” The alchemy that Correa and his campaign strategists have in mind is a formula aimed at producing a solid majority for the government in the constituent assembly. Correa’s own MPAIS (Movimiento Patria Altiva y Soberana) founded for 2006 presidential race, morphed into Alianza País, an umbrella that houses sixteen parties and organizations that supported his candidacy. But Correa’s relationship to the Alianza and the rest of the left is complex, and shows some signs of strain; partners inside the Alianza have already complained about being marginalized. Complaints will only intensify as activists find themselves excluded from the candidate list for the assembly.7 Thus, the prospects for continuing (or even exacerbating) fragmentation in the party system remain. To date, at least 124 organizations officially have requested the requisite forms to begin the process of collecting signatures for a place on the constituent assembly ballot.

Nonetheless, in light of the president’s popularity and his impressive policy record to date, the government is confident that it will be in a position to do very well in the assembly election.8 The emergent electoral strategy of the government is a complicated mix of cooperation and competition with other groups on the left; at the provincial level, the government will run in varied, selected alliances. Whatever the outcome for organizations on the left, the course of the constituent assembly will likely hinge on the government’s ability to forge and maintain post-election alliances with other organizations on the left such as Pachacutik as well as impose party discipline on its own caucus.

The assembly elections have the potential to induce a substantial alteration of the balance of power in the party system. Parties that performed well in the 2006 presidential and congressional elections (PRIAN and PSP) did so on the basis of their populist appeals and clientele networks. Correa’s personal popularity and social assistance policies are likely to erode those networks.9 To date, one of the most intriguing developments in the Correa administration to date has been the creation of a Secretariat of Peoples, Movements and Social Organizations. Headed by forajido leader Manuela Gallegos, the entity is charged working with existing popular organizations in the administration of social programs --- it takes little imagination to envision how the new government-civil society nexus could be put to work in consolidating support for the assembly elections.

Parties that performed poorly in 2006 (ID, PSC, RED) will suffer from the same problem of how to compete with the popular president who is seen as delivering on his campaign promises, especially in the realm of public spending. In the first months of his government, Correa doubled monthly welfare payments to low-income families (from $15 to $30), doubled the assistance available in the housing loans program (from $1800 to $3600), expanded the small business loan program, mandated subsidized rates on electricity for low-usage households and low cost inputs for agricultural producers, extended benefits in food assistance, and launched a new literacy and free schoolbooks plan. Rival parties of all persuasions are likely to be seen as irrelevant by voters who welcome the government’s pro-active approach to Ecuador’s grinding poverty and social inequities. Correa’s job approval rating currently stands at a whopping 76 percent, among the very highest for Latin American presidents.

Inducing macro-level changes in the party system may prove easier than midlevel changes in the nature partisan of organizations and how they govern themselves. Many of the new political organizations are personalistic or clique vehicles, hardly concerned with the niceties of internal democracy. MPAIS is reported to be vetting potential candidates by using a combination of non-binding primaries, public opinion surveys and interviews.10 In short, the party system stands at the brink of major changes in terms of the balance of forces; less clear is whether the internal culture of parties will change in the process.

The Public Sphere and Political Culture: New or Más de lo Mismo?

In the confines of this brief memo, I cannot hope to wrestle with the myriad issues related to the development of democratic political culture. No doubt that colleagues commenting on movement politics will address how mass-based organizations are contributing to this process. In Ecuador, the Confederación de Nacionaliades Indígenas (CONAIE) and its allied party Pachacutik have played a vital role in challenging the exclusion of indigenous peoples and their concerns from the public life. More recently, new political organizations and civil society groups, many of whom were associated with the 2005 forajido rebellion, have been ardent advocates of the constituent assembly as a gateway to foment new participatory modes of politics.11 The push for a constituent assembly reflects significant pressures “from below” for more participatory politics.

Let me turn to the equally important question of what is happening “from above.” No subject has inflamed Correa’s critics more than that of his leadership style and rhetoric. Correa’s Manichean views are the daily fare of politics. The president has a colourful collection of epithets that he routinely employs to describe his political opponents: mafiosos, pelucones, engominados, estafadores, saqueadores del Estado, dinosaurios, cadáveres, entreguistas, farsantes, payasos, víboras, lobos. Many seasoned observers note how Correa’s belligerent rhetoric recalls the trash talking of previous populist leaders, Velasco Ibarra and Bucaram; it does not sound like a vocabulary suited to a new, bright, and shiny democratic era. Even more appalling to critics than all the macho talk was Correa’s muscular use of executive power to shred the last vestiges of Ecuador’s tattered institutional order during the conflict over the constituent assembly. Under the president’s orders, the national police, not the courts, became the final arbiter of which congressional deputies could claim their seats. In short, Correa’s rhetoric and bullying mode of conflict-resolution hardly seem conducive to developing a public culture that is tolerant of contending opinions, respectful of rights, and committed to the rule of law. Minister of government Gustavo Larrea argues that the president’s style is a function of the need to demolish the last roadblocks to democratic reform (namely, the obstructionist congress and the corrupt partidocracia) and that the constituent assembly heralds a new phase in politics, one that will be more constructive and less confrontational.12 Whether or not a kinder, gentler Correa is on the horizon, the debate over his leadership style merits further reflection: How does presidential personality and style impact the trajectory of each national Left Turn and what values do charismatic, media-savvy presidents communicate to citizens along the way?

Extrapolating from Ecuador: Questions for Comparative Research

In the process of trying to assess the meaningfulness of the Left Turn in individual national cases and across the region, we must necessarily think in the classic terms of identifying “change and continuity,” and by extension, the possibility of hybrid developments. The research challenge is enormous, combining the need for new empirical research in key areas (state-civil society relations, public policy, presidential leadership, etc.) with a finely-tuned historical understanding of the national contexts in which the Left Turn is played out.

Extrapolating from our consideration of the Ecuador’s recent experience, a research agenda can be configured around the following clusters of questions: 1) How is the Left Turn affecting the dynamics in party system? Is the left a transformative force in party politics? Is the Left Turn remaking the Right? Does the Left Turn disarm populism? 2) How are leftist leaders (and organizations) affecting elite and mass political culture? What are the discourses and norms of leftist politics and do they differ from previous appeals (by the “old” Left and by populists)? Is the left creating a new (democratic) public culture? 3) How is the left defining and affecting democratic institutionality? How does the left relate to the institutional forms of procedural democracy? Do bifurcated views of democracy (“bourgeois democracy” v. substantive democracy, procedural v. majoritarian) compete and affect approaches to institution-building? Is the left advancing new forms of deliberative democracy (as it claims) or are the supposedly new forms of participation prone to the old practices of clientelism and elite domination?

Table 1: Chronology of Institutional Conflict, January-April 2007

15 January

Correa signs Decree 002 mandating the consulta popular on the constituent assembly (CA) along with a statute stipulating how the CA will be elected and endowing it with “full powers.”

17 January

Correa sends decree and statute to Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE) for implementation, maintaining that congressional approval is not required.

23 January

Pro-CA demonstrators disrupt TSE meeting. TSE votes to send statute to congress for approval.

30 January

Pro-CA demonstrations at congress. Demonstrators break through police cordon, enter building and disrupt activities.

10 February

President Correa reiterates his pledge to create an ad hoc electoral tribunal to organize the consult should the TSE fail to implement the decree

13 February

Congress approves a statute enabling the consulta, but stipulates that the incoming CA cannot dismiss the sitting congress. Also removes requisite that political organizations seek signatures (equivalent to 1 percent of registered voters) for place on CA ballot. TSE announces that the consulta will be held on April 15, 2007.

28 February

Correa sends a revised statute to TSE for approval. Statute does not recognize any limitations on the “full powers” of the CA; also reinstates signature requirements for registration on CA ballot.

1 March

Without remitting revised statute to congress, TSE approves it.

5 March

Legislators file case with Tribunal Constitucional (TC) to challenge the constitutionality of the new statute

6 March

Congressional majority votes to oust TSE president Jorge Acosta

7 March

TSE disregards congress. The TSE votes to strip 57 legislators of their seats and political rights for obstructing the electoral process by voting to remove the TSE president.

8 March

Deposed legislators are blocked from entering congress by police.

An angry mob attacks legislators when they attempt to gather at a nearby hotel.

13 March

Correa announces his support for the TSE as the final arbiter in electoral matters, dismissing any TC jurisdiction in the case

19 March

Government announces that deposed legislators will not be permitted to enter congress

20 March

Substitute legislators (suplentes) take the seats of the deposed legislators; new legislators form pro-government Bloque Dignidad caucus.

28 March

Police surround congress, refusing entrance to deposed legislators.

15 April

Consulta Popular is held. 82 percent of voters endorse CA.

23 April

TC rules to reinstate deposed legislators. Correa rejects the ruling and says that deposed legislators should be arrested if they attempt to enter congress.

24 April

Pro-government congressional majority votes to remove TC members on the grounds that their term in office expired in January 2007.

24 April

Prosecutor Elsa Moreno issues request for an arrest warrant for 24 deposed legislators charged with sedition

24 April

Six deposed legislators travel to Bogotá to explore possible request for asylum.

24 April

Correa criticizes arrest warrant request as “ill-timed.” Arrest request is rescinded subsequently. Deposed legislators vow to air their grievances to foreign governments and international institutions.


1 Francis Fukuyama, “History’s Against Him,” Washington Post, August 6, 2006.

2 In line with Lomnitz’s analysis, Correa articulates a dominant nationalist idiom, heavy on historical

references. He evoked the past in his campaign slogan, “La Patria Vuelve.” In addition to Bolívar and Che

Guevara, Correa makes recurrent references to Ecuador’s 19th century Liberal president, José Eloy Alfaro.

The new constituent assembly will convene in Alfaro’s birthplace, Montecristi, Manabí. A 164- foot statue

of Alfaro along with an eternal flame is slated for construction at the assembly’s site. See Claudio Lomnitz,

“Foundations of the Latin American Left,” Public Culture 19, 1 (Winter 2007): 23-27.

3 Space limitations do not permit for a complete discussion of the comparisons here; suffice it to say that

the comparisons weigh heavy on the minds of political opponents (as well as some of Ecuador’s most

distinguished social scientists and journalists). For a discussion, see the cover story, “Autoritarismo:

¿Verdad o paranoia?” Vanguardia, February 13-19, 2007.

4 The worst-case scenario was articulated by former president Osvaldo Hurtado (El Comercio, April 1,

2007) who denounced Correa as an aspiring caudillo who would use to assembly to consolidate his control

over all institutions. Hurtado, along with the Unión Demócrata Cristiana, championed the unsuccessful No

campaign to stop the assembly. But even supporters of the assembly are concerned about Correa’s caudillotype

personality and its effects on the left, see César Montúfar, “Democracia y caudillismo,” El Comercio,

May 9, 2007.

5 Scott Mainwaring, Ana María Bejarano and Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez, “The Crisis of Democratic

Representation: An Overview,” in The Crisis of Democratic Representation, ed. Scott Mainwaring, Ana

María Bejarano, and Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 18-20.

6 Michael Coppedge, “Venezuela: Popular Sovereignty versus Liberal Democracy,” in Constructing

Democratic Governance in Latin America, ed. Jorge Domínguez and Michael Shifter (Baltimore: Johns

Hopkins University Press, 2003), 165-192.

7 On May 10, Alianza País announced that it had reached an agreement with two organizations, Alernativa

Democrática and Nuevo País, to support a single list of assembly candidates.

8 The government’s prospects for controlling the assembly were greatly advanced by the provision in the

constituent assembly statute which stipulates that the assembly can approve all measures through an

absolute majority. This means that MPAIS and its allies need just 66 of the 130 seats to wield majority


9 Campaigning will also be affected by the enactment of strict spending limits for political organizations

and a ban on broadcast advertising. Organizations will be limited to using the publicly-financed air time

allotted to them. This is blow to Alvaro Noboa’s PRIAN which relied on its founder’s personal fortune in

the 2006 campaign.

10 Correa’s quick rejection of efforts by his family members to create new “correista” parties was widely

applauded as a positive move to choke off nepotism and personalism.

11 For a fascinating analysis of the forajido rebellion, see Franklin Ramírez Gallegos, La insurrección de

abril no fue solo una fiesta (Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 2005).

12 “La Izquierda que diseña el gobierno,” Vanguardia, May 8-14, 2007. The Correa administration, and

many groups on the left, argue insistently that the constituent assembly process will be a purgative

experience, one that will excise the old ways of doing politics. As Felipe Burbano De Lara noted, the

constituent assembly has replaced revolution in the imaginary of the left, see “La izquierda y la magia,”

Hoy, May 8, 2007.

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