In final debate, Ecuador’s presidential candidates tackle crime, economy

Left-leaning candidate Luisa González and centrist Daniel Noboa face off ahead of the October 15 run-off election.

A man, Daniel Noboa, leans forward to speak into a microphone placed upon a debate stage. Behind him, a banner reads: Ecuador debate.
Centrist candidate Daniel Noboa played up his business acumen during Sunday's final presidential debate [Michele Bertelli/Al Jazeera]

Quito, Ecuador – The final two Ecuadorian presidential candidates, Luisa González and Daniel Noboa, have faced each other in the last debate before the run-off election on October 15.

Sunday night’s debate gave both candidates a platform to address long-simmering issues in the country, like rising rates of violent crime and the struggling economy.

But whoever wins the race faces an unconventional — and abbreviated — presidential term.

Outgoing President Guillermo Lasso initiated the elections in May, when he became the first president in Ecuador’s history to invoke a constitutional mechanism known as “two-way death”, which dissolved the national assembly but also cut short his term.

The victor in the upcoming election will only serve for the remainder of Lasso’s time in office, until 2025.

“In a 17-month government, we need to address the urgencies: lower violence [and] youth unemployment and create new work opportunities,” Noboa said during Sunday’s debate.

But the centrist Noboa, 35, and the left-leaning González, 45, differed on what those immediate needs should be and how they could be addressed.

Luisa Gonzalez stands on a debate stage, speaking into a microphone, in front of a banner that reads: Ecuador debate.
Left-leaning candidate Luisa Gonzalez pledged to invest in social programmes during Sunday night’s debate [Michele Bertelli/Al Jazeera]

Restoring Ecuador’s economy

The economy was the first issue discussed in the debate, with the candidates offering prospective solutions to issues like low oil profits and high youth unemployment.

“Ecuador must turn into a competitive country. Because it’s not,” Noboa said.

The scion of a powerful local business family, Noboa has crafted his campaign around the idea of attracting foreign investment and creating new work opportunities.

His plan includes incentives to hire more young workers, public investment in the electricity grid to lower energy costs, modernising oil refineries and granting loans with low mortgage rates for new home-buyers.

On the other hand, González defended the prominent role of state-backed initiatives in the national economy and pledged to boost social spending.

“I will inject [$2.5bn] into the economy, drawing from our international reserves deposited in Switzerland,” she said.

In her first 100 days in office, González has pledged to hire 1,000 new doctors to strengthen the public sector and to invest a further $140m in higher education.

González won the most votes in the first round of elections on August 16, but with 33.6 percent of the ballots, she failed to receive enough support to avoid a run-off race.

She represents the Citizen Revolution Movement, whose members are sometimes known as “correistas”.

The left-wing party was founded by former President Rafael Correa, who governed Ecuador from 2007 to 2017 and was later sentenced to eight years in prison on corruption charges, though he has yet to surrender to authorities. He currently lives in Belgium.

González, however, has defended Correa, saying he will be a main counsellor to her presidency.

A street vendor holds up a card with one hand and holds open a briefcase with merchandise with the other.
Street vendor José Cesar Vargas told Al Jazeera that social programmes for low-income households attracted him to Luisa González [Michele Bertelli/Al Jazeera]

Crime a top priority

The economy remains Ecuador’s Achilles heel. According to the European insurance group Credendo, its public debt is high when compared with its national gross domestic product (GDP). At the end of 2022, debt alone accounted for 57 percent of the GDP.

Experts say that the economic instability has contributed to another major issue facing this year’s presidential candidates: crime.

Violence has spiked in recent years, with drug cartels and criminal organisation expanding their grip on Ecuador, a coastal country strategically located between top cocaine-producing regions in Peru and Colombia.

Ecuador, once one of the most peaceful countries in Latin America, is now on track to become the third-most violent country in the region, behind Honduras and Venezuela. From January to June, Ecuadorian police recorded 4,374 homicides, with approximately 19 people killed daily.

In August, that violence spilled over into the presidential race, with the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio at a campaign rally in the capital Quito.

Since the assassination, candidates have been wearing bullet-proof vests. González herself revealed she has received death threats.

“We will take back the control of our country, prisons, streets and especially our harbours and airports by militarizing them,” she said in the debate, promising to invest $500m to provide the police with new equipment.

Noboa likewise used the debate to spotlight his security plan. He proposed to centralise Ecuador’s intelligence capabilities with a new operation centre that would use satellites to track overseas exports and strengthen border control.

However, experts say both candidates have drifted away from security as the driving issue behind their campaigns.

“They have shifted towards their strong suits: social issues for González and economic ones for Noboa,” Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told Al Jazeera.

“Gonzalez has not emphasised the security issue previously, perhaps because the Correa governments also made mistakes that contributed to the increase in insecurity,” Freeman explained.

He added that “Noboa’s proposal on security felt sort of random”.

Supporters of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Luisa Gonzalez rally outside at twilight, waving flags, carrying banners and wearing blue campaign shirts.
Supporters of Ecuadorean presidential candidate Luisa Gonzalez rally in Quito, Ecuador, where the candidates held a debate on October 1 [Karen Toro/Reuters]

Debates play prominent role

Noboa, however, entered the debate with a slight edge over González, with 55.95 percent support among voters, according to the latest poll from the research firm Comunicaliza.

But many Ecuadorians have not yet made up their minds about whom to vote for. According to the research company CEDATOS, 37.5 percent of voters have not picked a candidate.

Álvaro Marchante, a manager at Comunicaliza, pointed out on social media that debates often play a significant role in shaping voter opinion.

Noboa, for instance, started the year performing poorly in the polls. But after taking part in the first debate in August, his prospects soared. According to Comunicaliza, almost half of viewers surveyed declared him the debate winner.

“We must remember the strong electoral impact that the electoral debate had on the first round, so it’s important to draw no hurried conclusions,” Marchante posted on the social media platform X before Sunday’s debate.

This time, however, González managed to deliver a more cohesive message, according to political analyst Francisco Montahuano.

“In terms of security, I regard the narrative of both candidates as insufficient,” he told Al Jazeera. “But when it comes to the economics and public administration, González illustrated her proposals with more consistency, providing numbers and explaining exactly where she will invest the money.”

Nevertheless, political analyst Jacobo García believes that both candidates missed opportunities to advance their platforms.

“Noboa was not able to take advantage of his narrative about being the new against the old,” García said, referencing Noboa’s attempts to play up his youthfulness.

As for González, García said she failed “to demonstrate why she is here today as a leader”.

“Many still see her simply as Correa’s puppet,” he told Al Jazeera. He added that the debate is not an end in and of itself: “It’s the conversation that follows that matters. What happens from now on will be crucial.”

A young woman in a jean jacket stands on a street, facing the camera.
Architect Cynthia Cabascango told Al Jazeera that insecurity would be a deciding issue for her at the polls [Michele Bertelli/Al Jazeera]

Voters weigh in on outcome

After the debate on Monday morning, voters were left to digest what they heard from the candidates.

Fears about rising crime motivated architect Cynthia Cabascango, 24, to tune in.

“Whether you live in Quito, Guayaquil, or Esmeraldas, you can feel the insecurity,” she said. “This is the most important issue they must deal with, so I watched the debate to listen to their proposals.”

Street vendor José Cesar Vargas, meanwhile, found himself drawn to González’s proposed social programmes for low-income households.

“She will provide poor children with school uniforms and with the opportunity of enrolling into university, this is something that was missed,” the 65-year-old told Al Jazeera.

But some also fear a new era of reckless spending, including system engineer Diego González, 26.

“González wants to draw from our international reserves, and this has already given us problems in the past,” he said. “As Noboa said, we should regard international reserves only as our last chance.”

Source: Al Jazeera