March 8, 2011 § 3 Comments


Who lives there?: Around fifteen million people. 65% identify as mestizo, or of mixed descent; 25% as Amerindian; and 7% as “Criollo” or of largely unmixed Iberian descent. Of course, in reality, these three groups all exist as part of the same analog continuum; but the extent to which one is of indigenous descent is a major issue as it strongly (negatively) impacts ones economic and social prospects.

3% identify as Afro-Ecuadorian. This group, about a million strong, are allegedly largely the descendants of  slave ships that were wrecked of the coast of Ecuador in 1560. They form a majority in the northern province of Esmeraldas.

How does the system work? (the theory): The president exercises executive power and also considerable legislative influence. They are elected by two round first past the post although a second round is not necessary provided the leading candidate wins more than 40% of the vote and has a lead of more than 10% over the second placed candidates. Terms are for four years and there is a two term limit.

The legislative body is the unicameral National Assembly. It has 124 members elected for a four year term at the same time as the President. 103 are elected by First Past The Post, 15 by nationwide d’Hondt PR, and 6 by Ecuadorians abroad in three, two-member FPTP constituencies.

Ecuador is divided into provinces which are subdivided into cantons and these in turn are divided into parishes. Each has a directly elected governor, prefect, or mayor and an assembly or council of some sort – also directly elected.

There is great scope for direct democracy in the new constitution, although this has not yet been utilised. Depending on the issue signatures of somewhere between 0.5% (local bylaws) and 15% (constitutional amendments) of the population can trigger local or national referendums and recalls.

How does the system work? (the practice): The new constitution was brought in in 2008 and is still bedding down. There are also those that challenge the legitimacy of the process by which it was brought in.

In general the system works, but is incredibly fragile. Civil society groups are very powerful – on occasion more powerful than the government. There were 8 presidents between 1996 and 2006, and most met their end at the hands of coups, protests, and action by civil society groups – not elections. There was another botched coup attempt just last year.

How did we get here?: Having had various indigenous empires, the area was conquered by the Inca in 1463 at the battle of Yahuarcocha (blood lake). They didn’t get to keep it for long though, losing it to the Spanish in 1560.

In 1809 the city of Quito rebelled and declared independence from Spain. The rebellion only lasted two months but it was the first temporarily successful such rebellion and so inspired the later Bolivarian revolutions. Ecuador itself threw off Spanish rule in 1822 and immediately joined Simon Bolivar’s Republic of Gran Colombia. However by 1830 they had decided to go it alone, and declared independence once again.

It had a rocky time with conservative and liberal wings often clashing and presidents coming and going. The short but sharp liberal revolution of 1895 broke the back of the power of the conservatives and the church.

There were also on-off disputes and the occasional wars with both Colombia and particularly Peru over the disputed Maynas province. This flared up into violent conflict between Ecuador and Peru in 1928. Sometimes referred to as the longest war in the history of the western hemisphere, the war lasted from 1928 to 1998 – although there was only actually concerted fighting in 1928, 1941-2, 1981 and 1995. The 1942 fighting was the fiercest, and when it was over Ecuador had given up its claim to Maynas proper, but various smaller territorial disputes remained and Ecuador’s final acceptance of the current borders is a source of controversy to this day.

The indigenous community had traditionally boycotted elections; but, starting in 1996, they became more involved. In 2000 one of their most prominent leaders, Lucio Gutiérrez, was involved in a coup which seized power on the back of widespread indigenous demonstrations. They only held power for three hours, and Gutiérrez spent the next six months in prison, but it was a statement of intent and sure enough Gutiérrez was elected president in 2002 – the first non-Criollo ever to hold the role.

Things did not go well for him though. Elected on the back of a left-wing/indigenous coalition, both sides deserted him shortly afterwards amidst allegations of broken promises and run-away corruption. The powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) disowned him and, once the left abandoned him over labour reforms ,he was done for – he was impeached in 2005. The 2006 elections saw the left rally around a new leader – Rafael Correa.

Aside from economic policies, Correa’s big beef was the constitution. Against the odds he did succeed in abolishing the legislative, electing a constituent assembly, establishing a new constitution, and getting it ratified by a referendum. When he called early elections in 2009 and won in the first round (the first time that had happened since the ’70s dictatorships, and he would have won even under the old 50% rule) it appeared he had not suffered any negative consequences from that bruising experience.

However it now seems that he was damaged, albeit this was hidden at first. When he introduced austerity measures, his left wing support base were furious and this accentuated fracture lines which had started to develop beforehand. Things came to a head in 2010 when public service workers, led by the police, launched a coup attempt. However the coup was an abject farce. It appears the police’s plan had been to pave the way for a military takeover – however if that is ones plan then it is both advisable and customary to sound out the military first. When the military backed Correa, the police were left without a plan B (other than to lock Correa in a hospital and fire tear gas at him – which they did – this brought about an end to the coup leader’s police career but not to the government).

Who’s in charge?: Parties tend to be temporary affairs and personality based. The left dominate but they are deeply split; even more so now austerity measures are being introduced.

The two main personalities on the left have already been discussed: Gutiérrez and Correa. Gutiérrez’s party is the PSP (or January 21 PSP to give it its full name) and is traditionally considered to be the further right of the two – although that is changing. They are also traditionally the party that enjoys more indigenous support – although the fact that Correa worked in the indigenous highlands and is fluent in indigenous languages means the division is not total. Correa’s party is the PAIS.

Whilst the right are smaller they benefit from having fewer splits. They are fairly unified around the Social Christian Party (PSC). They totally dominate the richer coastal region (although, due to tactical voting, not in presidential elections) but haven’t won the presidency since the late ’80s.

The right is not entirely hegemonic however: there is also the right wing populist PRIAN. They are the party of Álvaro Noboa: a banana magnate and Ecuador’s richest man. He always does well in Presidential elections – even winning round one on one occasion – however, as a divisive figure, as and when he ever makes the second round the electorate coalesces around his opponent. PRAIN do far less well in Parliamentary elections as Noboa is their only politician of note.

At the last election Correa won with 52% to Gutiérrez’s 28%. Noboa won 11% on a combined PRAIN/PSC ticket.

Correa’s PAIS won 59 seats – 3 short of a majority – and decided that would be enough to form a minority administration (as with the USA, the strong President means that a majority in the legislative is not vital). As expected the PSP came second (19 seats), PSC third (11 seats), and PRAIN fourth (7 seats). Despite the move to predominately FPTP a further 13 parties won seats – which shows just how fragmented Ecuadorian politics is:

The Marxist MPD won 5 seats.

The Municipalist Movement for National Integrity (MMIN) won 5 seats. They appear to be a group of local councillors who supported Correa’s constitutional reforms but then – post the ratification of the new constitution – split away from supporting the PAIS in order to pursue their own policies; although it is not clear what these are.

The Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement – New Country won 4 seats. They are a centre-left indigenous movement who grew out of a civil society group of the same name. Like most of their kind they supported the coup in 2000, Gutiérrez in 2002, and his impeachment in 2005. However they are now trying to distance themselves from the more militant indigenous civil society groups such as CONAIE, and present themselves as moderates one can do business with.

The Ecuadorian Roldoist Party won 3 seats. They are centre-left and are named after the president who brought back democracy in 1979, and are run by his brother.

The hard-left but not communist Democratic Left won 3 seats.

The pro-democracy National Democratic Coalition won one seat.

Seven seats are nominally held by independents. In each case the Assembly members in question are not true independents (being elected as an independent in Ecuador is very difficult as nomination is far more arduous than for those running on a party platform) but belong (one each) to seven minor political parties. However, as the political parties they represent did not contest national elections in their own name, these AMs are officially considered independents. It’s not entirely clear what all these parties stand for, but in most cases I would assume local concerns. They have some lovely names: the Independent Movement Deeds are Loves; the Social Conservative Movement of Carchi; the Independent Political Movement Amauta Yuyai; the Autonomous Region; the Regional Action for Equity/Latin American Popular Alliance; and the Independent Movement United for Pastaza.

Political Parties in Ecuador

As previously mentioned, civil society groups and trade unions exert considerable influence. Trade Unions and indigenous rights groups are the most powerful, but there is a broad plateau of different groups representing a range of political, ethnic, regional, and professional concerns. As mentioned the indigenous rights based CONAIE is perhaps the largest and most powerful individual group, but Ecuadorian civil society is perhaps at its most powerful when the many smaller groups come together around an issue: such as opposing the austerity measures. Here is the World Bank on Ecuadorian Civil Society.

What does it look like?: Given that Ecuador contains both the Galapagos islands and the upper tributaries of the Amazon it is perhaps unsurprising that it contains some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. The Galapagos islands are surprisingly large but sparsely inhabited; famously every island is different. The Ecuadorian mainland can be divided into three sections: near the coast is low-lying fertile farmland; then there is a strip of pastoral, and some sparse, highland which goes up to about 6000m; the other side of the highland is the Amazon basin. This is thick rainforest; it covers around 50% of the country but only 5% of the population live here. This video is very silly but actually does show you some of the scenery:

What are the issues?: At the heart of all the issues is the economy. For the first part of the last decade the main issue was the lack of rights and access to resources by the indigenous population. This was the key factor behind the coup, Gutiérrez’s rise and fall, and the constitutional crisis of 2005. The new constitution has by no means solved these problems, but it has mostly parked them, and for a while the focus changed to the linked issue of environmental protection – the constitutional protection given to the environment in the 2008 constitution is far stronger than anything else of its kind in the world.

However now the issue is the economy once again. Correa won election on the basis of rejecting market liberalisation, telling the developed world and the IMF to stuff it, and investing in infrastructure. Now the economic downturn is biting he is having to put all these policies on hold and reduce public spending – and that is not popular.

A good source of impartial information is: Freedom of expression isn’t as well protected as it used to be – and so greater self-censorship is creeping in. High access costs mean few people use the internet and shortwave radio is the dominant medium. There are many private news outlets, La Hora might be the most comprehensive.

A good book is: Ecuador has tended to be an afterthought in Latin American Political Science but there are some good books, particularly on the indigenous political angle. Highly Recommended are: From Peasant Struggles to Indian Resistance: The Ecuadorian Andes in the Late Twentieth Century, Pachakutik: Indigenous Movements and Electoral Politics in Ecuador (Critical Currents in Latin American Perspectives), Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements, and Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador; whilst Indians, Oil, and Politics: A Recent History of Ecuador and Ecuador in Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture provide more of a general overview.

Meanwhile The Two-headed Household: Gender and Rural Development in the Ecuadorean Andes, Theories of Dependent Foreign Policy: Case of Ecuador in the 1980s (Monographs in International Studies, Latin America),and The Lebanese in Ecuador: A History of Emerging Leadershipsound delightfully niche.

When are the next elections?: Elections are due in 2013. As Correa’s brother has just formed a new opposition political party it could be Correa vs Correa.


§ 3 Responses to Ecuador!

  • gekko says:

    There is a lot of good information on your site, but please do check your sources : Sash’s video clip “Ecuador” was made on the Spanish Canary Islands, so it does not give any impressions about Ecuador at all. I do agree that the video is very silly though.

  • Thank you. Oops! I had genuinely no idea. I just assumed.

    That said it is in there mostly because it is silly and not strictly for its informative value so I won’t change it. Here is what Ecuador actually looks like:

  • gekko says:

    Keep on the good work en keep a critical mind.

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