Ecuador 2023 Local Elections and Constitutional Referendum:
A significant blow to Lasso administration sees Correa movement take key wins
By: Daniel Hernández, Senior Consultant Global Healthcare Practice at Speyside Group
- The outcome of the 2023 local elections and the constitutional referendum represents a major blow for President Lasso’s administration and the center-right governing party, CREO.
- The election results are a significant win for the RC movement and former president Rafael Correa.
- The decisions the Lasso administration will take in the coming weeks and months will be key in shaping the political landscape for the next two years.
The 2023 local elections and constitutional referendum in Ecuador held on Sunday February 5 marked a pivotal moment in the country’s political landscape, as voters voiced their opinions on President Guillermo Lasso´s administration months before its half-way mark. With former president Rafael Correa’s Revolución Ciudadana (Citizens Revolution – RC) movement winning key local races and the Lasso administration losing the constitutional referendum, the outcome of the elections will have far-reaching political implications in the short and medium term.
In December, Speyside published its predictions for 2023 and highlighted the substantial political headwinds the Lasso administration would be facing this year and how former president Rafael Correa’s RC movement was poised to take advantage through local elections which also included a constitutional referendum and election of control authorities. However, a defeat in the constitutional referendum and RC taking political wins in key mayor and prefect (head of provincial government) races has surprised most analysts as virtually all polling showed a comfortable win for the Yes vote in all eight referendum questions.
Local Election Results
The 2023 local elections saw former president Correa’s RC movement win the mayor races in Quito and Guayaquil, the two largest cities in Ecuador. RC also won the race for prefect in the four of the five largest provinces – Azuay, Guayas, Pichincha, and Manabí. The results of the local elections represent a noteworthy win for RC and reflect a shift in political power towards left-leaning movements in the country as the indigenous political movement Pachakutik, which also campaigned for the No and has been in firm opposition to the Lasso administration, also took several local election wins.
Significantly, the wins for RC come from candidates who are considered loyal to Correa and have directly worked with him in prior administrations. Pabel Muñoz, who was elected mayor of the capital city Quito is a two-time National Assembly member where he served as Chair of the Economic Regime Commission and played a key role in the implementation of the economic reforms of the previous Lenin Moreno’s government. Prior to this, Muñoz held various positions in the Correa administration, including heading the National Secretariat of Planning and Development (Senplades) and serving as Undersecretary General of State Transformation for two years. Marcela Aguiñaga, who was elected as Prefect of Guayas, held several cabinet posts under Correa, including leading the Ministry of Environment, and was also a National Assembly member for RC. The Prefects of Pichincha, Manabí, and Azuay also have legislative and cabinet experience under previous Correa administrations and more recent legislatures.
RC took a different approach in the race for Mayor of Guayaquil, the country´s largest city and industrial hub, and selected a political newcomer in Aquiles Álvarez – a 38-year-old businessman with a background in the hydrocarbons sector. Álvarez currently manages multiple companies involved in fuel sales and real estate development, but he is widely popular in Guayaquil for serving on the board of directors of Barcelona Sporting Club, a renowned soccer team in Guayaquil.
Alvarez´s victory in Guayaquil is the first time the conservative Partido Social Cristiano (Social Christian Party – PSC) will not hold the municipality since 1992. Not even during the most popular moments of the Correa administration in the late 2000s and early 2010s was RC able to overthrow the PSC from the Guayaquil municipality. The PSC campaigned for Lasso in the 2021 elections but almost immediately turned to the opposition after problems arose with Lasso´s CREO party when deciding cabinet and legislative leadership nominations. The PSC has traditionally held a strong base in Guayaquil and has influenced national politics through the Guayaquil mayoral seat, so this defeat signals a low-point in recent history and signals a shift in the support in right-wing parties in favor of left-leaning movements in the two-year run-up to the next presidential elections.
Constitutional Referendum Results
The constitutional referendum that accompanied the local elections contained eight questions that aimed to address key issues such as the role of the state in water and climate conservation, reducing the number of legislators, changes in the election process of control authorities, and deportation of criminals. The outcome of the referendum was a major blow to the Lasso administration, as the No vote won in all questions. The government framed the referendum questions and campaign around issues at the top-of-mind of the voter like insecurity and were worded as “common sense” questions that the electorate could support independent of their feelings toward the Lasso administration.
This was not the case as the results show that the electorate took the referendum as an opportunity to voice widespread concern and disapproval of the Lasso administration. The results also indicate that there is a major lack of support for the Lasso administration’s efforts to reform the country’s institutions created in the 2008 constitution, which will make it difficult for the government to pass meaningful reforms in the future. In the coming weeks, the RC and Pachakutik parties that campaigned fervently against the referendum and for the No vote will claim this political victory and start positioning the idea of anticipated elections.
The crime and security scenario in Ecuador was a significant factor that influenced the outcome of the constitutional referendum. In October 2022, violence surged in coastal cities, resulting in mass prisoner transfers, which prompted a state of emergency in three provinces. In January 2023, Gallup published a poll that shows how Ecuador now ranks as the least safe country in Latin America, thanks to escalating gang violence, drug trafficking, and civil unrest in 2022. Nearly two in three (64%) Ecuadorians interviewed in 2022 said they do not feel safe walking alone at night where they live. This rise in perceived insecurity has been a major contributor to President Lasso’s weakened approval rating and fueled opposition to the referendum.
The electoral process also included the election of the seven members of the Council for Citizen Participation and Political Control (CPCCS) – a political institution created in the 2008 constitution which is responsible for “controlling” the political system, including the selection of members of the judiciary, the attorney general and other key control positions, and promoting transparency and accountability in public office. Included in the constitutional referendum where the No won, was a question to limit the power of the CPCCS in electing authorities of key institutions like the attorney or comptroller general which could be used as platforms to attack the Lasso administration. The idea was to limit the power of a CPCCS that would most likely be made up of opposition-linked candidates. The government was unsuccessful in the former, but the latter did occur.
In the CPCCS elections, Correa and RC-backed candidates won three of the seven seats, candidates promoted by the conservative PSC won two seats, and the other two members are independent. Given the PSC´s current opposition stance, the CPCCS could still implement an ambitious anti-graft campaign against the Lasso cabinet setting up a complicated political panorama and further institutional clashes in 2023.
The Government’s Reaction
The President’s communication team announced a public address by Guillermo Lasso on the results of the elections at 8pm on Sunday night when exit-polls still forecasted a small victory for the Yes in the referendum, but the address was cancelled shortly after as murmurs of the possibility of No win started circulating, possibly signaling how the referendum results came as a surprise to Lasso and his inner-circle.
Eventually, on Monday night, and a full 24 hours of silence after it was clear that the election would be a resounding defeat, President Lasso held a nationally televised speech reacting to the election results. In his address, Lasso said he accepted the lesson from the referendum and gave a vague speech on national unity behind key themes included in the referendum such as controlling crime and insecurity, reducing the waste of public funds, and improving public health and education. The President said that the referendum results were a wakeup call from the people to the Government and summoned “all the national leadership to build a great national agreement.” However, there were no concrete announcements or actions to be taken, particularly regarding changes within his cabinet.
The next morning, the Minister of Government, Francisco Jimenez, complemented the Government’s response by downplaying the referendum results. Jimenez said that assured that the results should not be understood as a “resounding rejection” to Lasso’s administration. “We are facing a country where half of it wants the Government to go to one side, these are not dramatic results”, Jimenez said.
The outcome of the 2023 local elections and the constitutional referendum represents a major blow for President Lasso’s administration and the center-right governing party, CREO. With defeat in both the local elections and constitutional referendum, the Lasso administration is facing a difficult road ahead. The weakened political support will make it difficult for the government to pass meaningful reforms and may result in a continuation of political turmoil in the country. This is aggravated by the already uphill battle the Lasso administration faces in the National Assembly where RC and Pachakutik hold the largest representation and lead an opposition majority that has already blocked flagship reforms proposed by the government.
The election results are a significant win for the RC movement and former president Rafael Correa. The RC movement’s key local election wins reflect a shift in political power towards left-leaning movements in the country. RC now holds the largest block in the National Assembly, the municipality of the two biggest cities, the Prefecture of the four of the five largest provinces, several allies in the CPCCS, and will continue to gain strength through the newly inaugurated local authorities in the run-up to the 2025 presidential elections where the RC candidate will be the clear favorite. The potential return of RC and the victory of a Correa-backed presidential candidate in 2025 has some parallels to the return of Kirchnerismo in Argentina after the Macri government and it could also feed the regional trend of anti-incumbency and sentiments of a “new pink tide” after left-leaning governments have taken power in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Chile.
Finally, the decisions the Lasso administration will take in the coming weeks and months will be key in shaping the political landscape for the next two years. The elections results sent Lasso´s inner circle a clear message that meaningful change in the cabinet, government policies, and relations with the National Assembly will be needed if the government wants to implement the campaign proposals that won them the 2021 elections. These include changes the Lasso administration can implement without legislative approval like reducing the burden of regulatory processes and red tape, entry into the Pacific Alliance, and business-friendly reforms to incentivize international trade. However, President Lasso’s reaction on the night following the elections hints that there is still no clear plan in the short term.