Ecuador’s Referendum Reveals a Fragmented Country

In a referendum on May 7, Ecuadorians voted on ten questions relating to constitutional, judicial, political, and social issues. In the run-up to the vote, many observers saw the election as a plebiscite on President Rafael Correa’s four years in office and his prospects of winning reelection in 2013, rather than a contest over any specific issues that the referendum raised.


Exit polls initially indicated that Rafael Correa had walked away with his sixth sequential electoral victory since initially winning the presidency in 2006. Social movement activists and left dissidents quickly insisted that the exit polling firms had distorted the data. The race was much closer than some believed, they contended.


For Correa, a clear and strong political rationale fueled his decision to hold the referendum. Following a surge of popularity in the aftermath of a failed September 30, 2010 police uprising that threatened his political position, a win in the referendum would allow Correa to hold on to power.


The Questions


The referendum began as a single issue of reforming the penal code to extend the period of pre-trial detention for criminals in order to address issues of public security. It then expanded to a total of ten issues. The first five questions would amend the new 2008 constitution and the remaining five touched on issues of wide ranging social, political, and economic significance.


The key questions in the referendum were about reforming a judicial system that Correa saw as corrupt and inefficient, as well as allowing an expansion of the president’s executive power. Passage of the first two questions would cancel the constitutional limit on the length of preventive detention, with a goal of accelerating the pace of criminal cases in the judicial system. The third question would limit the overlap between media companies and the banking sector, in particular restricting private banks from owning other companies and forbidding private media companies from participating in other economic ventures in order to prevent conflicts of interest. This question was important because the press remained firmly in the hands of the traditional oligarchy and was solidly opposed to the current government.


The fourth would completely overhaul what many saw as a corrupt, inefficient, and ineffective judicial system. The fifth would expand the council that appoints judges to include representatives from other branches of government. Opponents argued that this measure would make it possible for the president to limit the independence of the courts, essentially constituting a power grab. Correa, on the other hand, claimed that such steps were necessary to curtail corruption, overcome paralysis in the judicial system, and make the judiciary more efficient.


A second set of five questions touched on a broad set of non-constitutional issues. The sixth would criminalize the illegal acquisition of wealth in the private realm, something that was already classified as a crime in the public sector. The seventh question would ban casinos and gambling. The eighth would outlaw the mistreatment or killing of animals for entertainment. This question would be decided on a local level. Of the ten questions, this one faced the strongest challenge, particularly in areas such as Quito with its bullfighting and cockfighting traditions.


The ninth question would create a regulatory council to monitor violent, explicitly sexual, or discriminatory content in both broadcast and print media. Many opponents interpreted this measure as an attempt to limit the freedom of the media in order to muzzle dissent and this was one of the most controversial questions on the referendum.


The final question required employers to register their employees in the Social Security Institute. This was the least controversial of the proposals and enjoyed the highest level of popular support.


The Opposition


As the May 7 vote approached, a variety of campaigns both for and against the referendum moved into high gear. First was the traditional conservative and now largely discredited oligarchy that, with Correa’s presidency, had lost its 200-year grasp on political power. Although out of government, they continued to have a stranglehold on the media and used this to attack and denounce Correa at any opportunity. Leading this opposition were such figureheads as Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot from the conservative Partido Social Cristiano (PSC, Social Christian Party) and billionaire Álvaro Noboa, perennial losing presidential candidate of the Partido Renovador Institucional Acción Nacional (PRIAN, National Action Party of Institutional Renewal).


Second were political opponents grouped around Lucio Gutiérrrez of the Partido Sociedad Patriótica (PSP, Patriotic Society Party). A career military officer, Gutiérrrez initially came into the public’s eye on January 21, 2000 when he joined with indigenous movements in a coup that removed Jamil Mahuad from power after he’d implemented drastic neoliberal economic policies of privatization and the dollarization of the economy.


Although the coup failed, with the support of his indigenous allies, Gutiérrez won the presidency two years later. In power, however, the former colonel quickly moved rightward and embraced the same neoliberal polices he had previously denounced, thus alien- ating his social movement base.


Nevertheless, Gutiérrez managed to maintain a strong base of support in the central highland indigenous communities. Reflecting Ecuador’s deeply entrenched regionalism, Gutiérrez also drew deep support in his native Amazonian region.


A third group of leftist dissidents, former Correa allies, charged that the concentration of power in Correa’s hands served to rollback the expansion of direct democracy embodied in Ecuador’s new progressive 2008 constitution. The most important leader of this wing was economist Alberto Acosta, a former ally of Correa’s who initially served as his minister of mines and then as president of the 2008 constituent assembly.


Following Acosta, four congressional deputies and two cabinet ministers left Correa’s political coalition to join the opposition. Most significantly, these included Alexandra Ocles, an Afro-Ecuadorian woman who was the minister of the secretariat of Pueblos, Movimientos Sociales y Participación Ciudadana (SPPC, Peoples, Social Movements, and Citizen Participation), a fourth branch (together with the executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral) of the government. These dissidents released a statement that, while they embraced the positive changes in Ecuador, Correa “cannot exceed his functions. In the exercise of power, we must recognize limits.”


These former allies viewed the referendum as a naked power grab by the president that betrayed the principles of their political project. Correa denounced their actions as a personal betrayal of his government. Acosta countered that, while he supported referendums and agreed with some of the issues, he opposed Correa’s attempts to blur divisions between branches of government. In particular, he urged defense of the independence of the judiciary.


Social movements formed a final axis of opposition to the referendum. Most notable were the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and Popular Democratic Movement (MDP). Founded in 1986, CONAIE gained a reputation for being one of the strongest and best organized social movements when, in 1990, it led a powerful uprising that challenged the oligarchy’s hold on power. In 1995, it helped organize the political coalition Movimiento Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik (MUPP, Pachakutik Movement for Plurinational Unity) to compete for political office.


The MPD formed the electoral wing of the Maoist Partido Comunista Marxista Leninista Ecuatoriano (PCE, Ecuadorian Marxist Leninist Communist Party) and drew much of its support from teachers in the Unión Nacional de Educadores (UNE, National Union of Educators). While in power, Correa had worked to divide and destroy both indigenous movements and teachers’ unions who were able to mobilize bases of support separate from those that formed the president’s electoral alliance. As a result, activists who otherwise might form Correa’s base of support became his sworn enemies. For them, government attempts to improve public security meant  the criminalization of dissent.


In alliance with the CONAIE and the MPD, Acosta launched a movement called Montecristi Vive to oppose the referendum. In the coastal city of Guayquil, former interior minister Gustavo Larrea created a parallel movement called Iniciativa Ciudadana. Both argued that the judicial reforms violated stipulations in the new constitution.


What Does the Outcome Mean?


Although many saw the referendum as a test of confidence in Correa’s government, voters apparently also voted on the basis of each individual question. As a result, seeing the outcome as a reflection of Correa’s popularity is simplistic and perhaps mistaken.


The urban poor remain Correa’s base, though he has lost much of the support of Quito’s middle and upper classes who streamed into the streets in April 2005 to overthrow his predecessor, Lucio Gutiérrez in the so-called Forajido (“Outlaw”) Rebellion, and who subsequently supported Correa and the country’s new constitution.


Correa’s strongest base of support in the referendum was on the coast that in recent years has voted heavily for conservative candidates. Some social movement activists pointed to this as evidence of the rightward drift in Correa’s government, but it could equally represent a new fragmentation of Ecuadorian politics along class rather than regional lines. This development had already been apparent in recent elections in the coast port of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, in which Correa has polled very well among the urban poor.


Likewise, central highland indigenous communities were one of the strongest bastions of opposition to the referendum. On the surface, it might appear that this represented a resurgence of CONAIE and Pachakutik, but these are also the areas where Gutiérrez has his strongest base of support and thus should be interpreted as a right wing rather than left opposition to Correa.


After winning six elections and with his popularity rating hovering around 60 percent, sociologist Jorge León contends that the referendum had little to do with the president wishing to consolidate or expand his power. Rather, León argued, it related to his psychological need to be loved and adored by the people. Furthermore, with an election still two years away, a referendum would be a way for Correa to demonstrate that his opponents had little weight or presence.


Correa remains the most popular politician that Ecuador has had in decades, even though the vote might be seen to indicate a decline in his popularity. The disparate opposition lacks leaders who can approach the president’s level of popularity. Perhaps Correa’s weak showing in the plebiscite can be interpreted as a popular attempt to limit his actions rather than an attempt to remove him from office.


Social movements in particular desire a president who is less authoritarian, less abrasive, less polarizing, and more responsive to their needs. More than anything, though, the referendum revealed a deeply fractured country that appears to be becoming even more divided along race, class, and regional lines.



Marc Becker is author of Pachakutik: Indigenous Movements and Electoral Politics in Ecuador (2011). This article first appeared in Upside Down World.