Ecuador presidential candidates make final push to woo voters

Ahead of vote on Sunday, presidential hopefuls are promising improved security in country struggling with surging crime.

Yaku Perez, surrounded by people, holding an Ecuador flag
Ecuadorean presidential candidate Yaku Perez and his running mate Nory Pinela walk through a crowd in the capital Quito after their closing campaign rally on August 17 [Reuters/Henry Romero]

Candidates vying to be Ecuador’s next president are holding their final campaign events ahead of a presidential vote marred by the murder of anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio.

More than 13 million Ecuadorians are eligible to head to polls on Sunday when the presidency and seats in the National Assembly are up for grabs.

The snap elections were prompted by an unusual move from conservative President Guillermo Lasso, who became the first Ecuadorian leader to invoke “muerte cruzada”, a constitutional measure that allowed him to dissolve the legislature and bring his term to an end.

Lasso had been facing an impeachment proceeding, which he dismissed as politically motivated. But in the wake of his decision, candidates have stepped forward to replace him, pledging to fight crime and bolster the struggling economy.

Critics have blamed the sharply rising violence on drug traffickers and Ecuador’s unemployment woes. And the country’s recent insecurity was on display last week, when Villavicencio, a former investigative journalist and lawmaker, was gunned down while leaving a campaign event.

“The new government must be more [decisive] and courageous,” Milton Oleas, a 67-year-old undecided voter, told the Reuters news agency. “The president cannot doubt what they do and must be valiant in taking decisions.”

Homicides have more than tripled in the capital Quito over the past three years, and the coastal cities of Guayaquil and Esmeraldas have been ranked among the region’s most dangerous. Deadly prison riots have also broken out on a regular basis.

Presidential candidates, who have beefed up protections and kept their schedules limited since Villavicencio’s assassination, made combating crime a central theme in their final campaign stops.

Luisa Gonzalez, a protégé of former left-wing President Rafael Correa, held her closing event in Quito on Wednesday, with a large event also planned in Guayaquil on Thursday. She promised a tough-on-crime approach.

“A firm hand against crime, against violence and against crime gangs, but a hand of solidarity and love for our people,” Gonzalez said at the Wednesday rally, in which Correa participated remotely from Mexico.

Gonzalez was leading the polls ahead of Villavicencio’s murder, with about 30 percent support. If elected, she has promised to use $2.5bn from international reserves to shore up the struggling economy and bring back social programmes implemented under Correa, who has since been convicted of corruption.

“We will take control of the country. It is the time to lift up the homeland with dignity,” she said at the rally.

A presidential candidate needs 50 percent of Sunday’s vote, or 40 percent if they are 10 points ahead of their nearest rival, to win in the first round. Otherwise, a run-off between the two top vote-getters will take place on October 15.

Environmentalist Indigenous candidate Yaku Perez, who has been in the top five of the eight candidates in recent polls, pledged a government of the people during a Thursday morning rally in Quito.

“The people are here now building popular power. The people are building from the bottom up participative and ecological democracy,” Perez said. “We are committing to have zero tolerance for corruption, for organised crime, for all structural violence.”

Businessmen Otto Sonnenholzner and Jan Topic also have rallies planned in Guayaquil, where violence has been acute, and both have promised economic reactivation and security.

Villavicencio’s Construye party was set to hold a memorial event for him in Quito.

His replacement, Christian Zurita, whose candidacy was officially approved by the electoral council late on Wednesday, has promised to better equip the police and enshrine intelligence protocols to fight crime, using international loans to shore up social programmes.

Villavicencio was polling near the middle of the pack in the eight-candidate field.

Juanita Goebertus, director of the Americas division for Human Rights Watch, tied Villavicencio’s assassination last week to the ongoing instability in the country.

“This is a tragedy that was probably something people could expect, given the very serious deterioration of the security situation in Ecuador,” she told Al Jazeera.

“If you compare the homicide rate between 2021 and 2022, there’s an increase of over 80 percent.”

Earlier this month, several Ecuadorian voters told Al Jazeera that safety and security are their top priorities.

“What we want today is peace, nothing more,” said Raul Gonzalez, a 44-year-old construction worker in Quito.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters