Ecuador voted in a new president on Sunday, in the first election in a decade that didn’t include the sitting president’s name on the ballot. Instead, Ecuadorans narrowly chose outgoing President Rafael Correa’s handpicked candidate, Lenín Moreno, over center-right candidate Guillermo Lasso — 51.05 percent to 48.95 percent.
The candidates campaigned on very different platforms, with Moreno proposing that the government remain heavily involved in strategic areas of the economy and Lasso campaigning as an advocate of free markets. On Monday, Lasso demanded an examination of the entire process, claiming fraud and election irregularities. The gap between the two candidates is about 225,000 votes.
Ecuador’s election could undermine the argument that Latin America is veering to the right again. In Bolivia, Evo Morales’s term ends in 2019. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega was elected in 2016 for a third consecutive term that will end in 2021. In Venezuela, the opposition has been calling for a referendum to replace Nicolás Maduro, Hugo Chávez’s successor. Moreno’s victory suggests that these left-wing leaders and their supporters might also be headed for additional terms in office.
Ecuador’s election outcome was no doubt welcomed by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who received asylum in 2012 and remains in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. Moreno had said he would continue to allow Assange to stay at the embassy, though he would ask him to “reduce meddling in the policies of the nations we have friendly relations with.” Had Lasso won, the opposition candidate had promised to rescind Assange’s asylum.
What does the election mean for 16 million Ecuadorans?
This election was particularly difficult to predict. A couple of hours before the first official results were announced, exit polls were reporting different winners — and both camps began to celebrate simultaneously. The confusion was exacerbated by the fact that several useful predictors of election outcomes turn out to be of little help in this election:
1) The number of times an incumbent’s party has been reelected in the past
Though Ecuador transitioned to democracy in 1979, the country has had very unstable presidencies. The last president to complete his full term was Sixto Durán Ballén, whose administration ended in 1996. In the 10 years between that transition and the election of Rafael Correa in 2006, the country had eight different presidents. And Moreno and Correa’s party, Alianza País, is only as old as Correa’s presidency, further complicating any predictions based on past voting behavior.
2) Turnout isn’t a good predictor
Ecuador has had compulsory voting since 1936, so turnout is not an especially good predictor, as it is in other countries. Close to 80 percent of registered voters showed up to cast their ballots in each round. The lowest turnout rates were for Ecuadorans living abroad — less than a third of Ecuadoran voters living in the United States voted. Turnout in previous elections hovered around 75 percent, not significantly different from this cycle.
3) Ecuadorans felt represented, regardless of their region
Ecuadorans generally divide the country into three distinct regions: coastal, highlands and Amazonian. Politics in the country is about making each region feel equally represented. Moreno’s ticket included all three: Moreno is from Amazonia, his running mate is from a coastal province, and the two have lived in the capital in the highlands for many years. Lasso is from the coast and announced he would run with someone from the highlands — even before picking a running mate. Both tickets were balanced on regional representation if not on gender, and the candidates nearly tied in each of the major provinces in the three regions.
4) The economic downturn didn’t seem to hurt the ruling party
Economic growth is normally a good predictor of elections in the region, with incumbents tending to suffer when growth is low. However, the recent fall in oil prices appeared not to matter in this election, despite the fact that the economy contracted by 2.3 percent last year. This year the economy is projected to contract by a further 2.7 percent. Still, voters showed up to support the government’s candidate.
So what did affect the outcome?
Two other factors seemed to influence how the vote would turn out. First in importance is government spending, which grew from 24 percent to a peak of 43 percent of gross domestic product during Correa’s presidency. Under Correa, the government significantly expanded education spending and created a host of targeted programs loosely modeled on Venezuela’s misiones.
Government spending stayed much the same during the past two years, and accounted for 36.8 percent of GDP in 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund. Moreno campaigned on maintaining social programs and social spending. Lasso, however, vowed to cut “superfluous” spending.
Second, Correa’s government announced an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent for 2016, which is among the lowest in the region. Governments have two basic options to guide employment — monetary policy and fiscal policy. Monetary policy measures were unavailable to Correa because the country’s economy is dollarized, and thus monetary policy is not independent. Correa has lamented this, calling dollarization a straitjacket. Fiscal measures would have meant spending more government money, which would prove very difficult with the price of oil near historic lows.
Correa’s government benefited from some statistics shifting. The government in Ecuador, like other Latin American governments, reports both unemployment and underemployment rates. Underemployment — above 50 percent for 2007 — is a more useful measure in countries like Ecuador that don’t have a safety net for people out of work.
In 2009, an election year, the government narrowed its approach to calculating underemployment. The national statistics agency included only those that earn less than the minimum wage, and that are actively looking for jobs. This meant the government could report underemployment of 43.6 percent and unemployment of only 7.3 percent for 2008, as Correa began his second consecutive term as president — and 19.9 and 5.26 percent respectively in 2016.
Switching up employment metrics and methodologies raised concern in recent U.S. confirmation hearings. In Ecuador, however, the change in methodology went largely unreported and possibly just handed the party of Rafael Correa and Lenín Moreno another electoral victory.
Fabiana Sofia Perera is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University. Her dissertation investigates unemployment and education in oil-producing countries. Follow her on Twitter @fabiana_sofia.