The will of the Ecuadorian people is under threat

The world should watch Ecuador’s April 11 presidential runoff closely to ensure no foul play, whether internal or external, disrupts the election or subverts the will of Ecuadorian voters.

Ecuador's presidential candidate Andres Arauz gestures as he attends a closing campaign rally, in Guayaquil, Ecuador April 7, 2021 [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

On April 11, the small South American nation of Ecuador – home to the Galapagos Islands and one of the oldest civilisations in the Western Hemisphere – is set to hold a presidential runoff pitting a greying member of the country’s financial elite, Guillermo Lasso, against 36-year-old Andrés Arauz, a progressive US-trained economist.

Arauz won the election’s first round with a 13-point lead over Lasso, and recent polling suggests that he could win the runoff by a landslide. Yet a fraught electoral process, foreign interference, and an avalanche of fake news threatens to derail Arauz’s candidacy and imperils the runoff election.

That Arauz won the first round by a wide margin is hardly surprising. While still in his 20s, the young economist played an important role in developing and executing popular government programmes during the administration of Rafael Correa (2007-17), which oversaw a period of dramatic social progress. Under Correa, poverty was reduced by 38 percent, extreme poverty by 47 percent, and inequality by almost 10 percent (as measured by the Gini coefficient).

Correa’s confrontational style and numerous clashes with the owners of large media companies and private banks earned him powerful enemies and a steady stream of negative media coverage, but did not seem to dampen his popularity. He was re-elected twice in massive landslides. In his last election, in 2013, he won by a margin of nearly 35 points against the runner-up, who happened to be Guillermo Lasso, a conservative banker.

It now appears that history will repeat itself, with Arauz widely expected to trounce Lasso at the polls. After four years of austerity and the repression of popular movements under President Lenín Moreno, the majority of Ecuadorians appear eager to support a return to progressive governance. Moreover, Arauz has a less confrontational approach to politics than Correa, and has reached out earnestly to Indigenous groups and to those who voted for the rival left-leaning Social Democratic Party. His plan to build an inclusive national coalition to tackle climate change, poverty, and social exclusion seems to have resonated with much of the population.

But dark clouds are gathering over Ecuador’s elections. A leading Ecuadorian newspaper recently published a call for the military to intervene to prevent the victory of a “Correista”, and some prominent public figures have echoed these appeals. This is particularly troubling in a country that has suffered numerous military coups, and in a region where military involvement in politics has been making a comeback (see, for instance, the role of the Bolivian military in the removal of Evo Morales in 2019, and the Brazilian military’s current involvement in the government of Jair Bolsonaro).

Tensions are also mounting with neighbouring Colombia. A week before the first round of the election on February 7, the Colombian weekly Semana – which has close links to the country’s conservative government – claimed that the Arauz campaign received $80,000 from the ELN, an armed group that operates largely in Colombia’s west. Unverified claims of this sort levelled at left-wing candidates frequently emerge ahead of Latin American elections; Rafael Correa faced similar unsubstantiated allegations involving Colombia’s FARC armed group during his first presidential run in 2006.

As was the case 14 years ago, Ecuadorian media outlets have devoted considerable coverage to these claims, despite the lack of supporting evidence and the implausible story of how the armed group’s “donation” was supposedly coordinated (during a conference that, it turned out, took place entirely online). Shortly after Semana’s hit piece was published, Colombia’s attorney general, Francisco Barbosa – a close ally of President Ivan Duque and former President Álvaro Uribe (recently convicted for fraud and bribery) – went on a highly publicised trip to Ecuador to deliver a set of digital files containing alleged ELN communications to his Ecuadorian counterpart, Diana Salazar, who announced that she would investigate. In response, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Prosecutors expressed concern that the actions of both attorney generals could be politically motivated, and stated that public prosecutors should not interfere in electoral processes.

But the biggest threat to Ecuador’s elections may lie within the electoral institutions themselves. The National Electoral Council (CNE) and the Electoral Tribunal have both taken decisions that suggest their members may have ulterior political motives. Despite his status as the candidate representing the nation’s most popular political movement, these bodies blocked Arauz’s path to the ballot repeatedly, forcing him to jump so many hurdles that he only managed to register as a presidential candidate at the last possible minute. During the first round, the CNE presented puzzling mixed messages regarding the results and some political actors took advantage of the confusion to promote claims of electoral fraud, though no evidence has emerged to support this.

The Organization of American States (OAS) – which sent an electoral observation mission to Ecuador – criticised the fact that outside entities were taking actions that might interfere with the electoral process, but also noted that members of the CNE issued “contradictory” and “confused” statements that created uncertainty among the voting public. Unfortunately, the OAS’s reputation has been tarnished after it promoted unfounded fraud claims in Bolivia’s 2019 election. Although the OAS mission in Ecuador appears to have monitored the first round in a balanced manner, many are wary whether the mission will maintain its impartiality in the high-stakes second round. There are concerns that it could be influenced by the political agenda of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, as it occurred in Bolivia.

The world must pay close attention to Ecuador over the next few weeks, and particularly during the April 11 election, to ensure that no foul play, whether internal or external, disrupts the election or subverts the will of Ecuadorian voters. A smooth, transparent, and democratic political transition is in everyone’s interest, both inside and outside of Ecuador.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.