Posted on Tue, Nov. 13, 2012 on The Miami Herald
Ecuador president looks at third term with record-high approval ratings
BY JIM WYSS
JUAN CEVALLOS / AFP/Getty Images
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa(2L) waves next to Jorge Glas(L) vice-presidential candidate for next general elections arrive at the National Electoral Council to register
his candidancy for a third term on November 12, 2012. Correa officially announced Saturday that he would run for a third term in February elections — a contest in which he is expected to be the runaway favorite.
As Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa biked through the streets of the capital Monday to register his candidacy for the Feb. 17 presidential race, he had reasons to be relaxed. Six years into office, he has record-high approval ratings, is facing a splintered opposition and has a 33-point lead over his nearest rival.
To Correa and his supporters, the rosy scenario is an endorsement of his progressive social policies, focus on the poor and infrastructure projects. To his foes, however, the daunting lead is a reflection of a skewed political system built on the nation’s oil wealth and at the expense of potential rivals.
“We’re making history and we’re going to take this citizens’ revolution to victory again,” Correa, 49, told supporters over the weekend as he announced his intention to seek a third term.
But like his ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in last month’s presidential election,
Correa has the deck stacked in his favor well before the votes are cast, said Guillermo
Lasso, 56, who is shaping up to be Correa’s main opponent.
“Fraud doesn’t necessarily mean manipulating the results on Election Day,” said Lasso, a
banker who is running on a center-left platform. “Fraud includes unfair rules that don’t allow for fair and free elections. This vote will be free but it won’t be fair, because one boxer has his feet tied, hands tied and has gauze in his mouth.”
While candidates aren’t allowed to begin running spots until Jan. 4, Correa floods the
airwaves with ads, interrupts programming on a regular basis and spends hours every
Saturday on live TV touting his successes and attacking his rivals. And record-high oil.
prices have allowed him to take credit for popular subsidies and public works programs that have helped reduce poverty and close the income gap.
According to the Mexican polling firm Mitofsky, Correa — a U.S.-trained economist and
former university lecturer — is the most popular leader in the hemisphere, with approval
ratings of 80 percent.
A poll taken in October by Ecuador’s Cedatos found Correa would have won with 56
percent of the valid votes if the election was held then, followed by Lasso with 23 percent. If a candidate wins by more than 50 percent, or at least 40 percent of the vote with a 10-point difference over his nearest rival, he can avoid a runoff.
“At this point, Correa has a real chance of winning the race in the first round,” said Cedatos President Polibio Cordova.
The president’s popularity is even more notable because Ecuador has a habit of turning on its leaders. Before Correa took office in 2007, the Andean nation had toppled three presidents in eight years, including his immediate predecessor.
But some say Correa’s popularity is a mirage, created by undercutting potential rivals.
Alvaro Noboa, 60, is Ecuador’s wealthiest man and is running for the presidency for the fifth time. In the 2006 race, he won the first-round of the election only to lose to Correa in the runoff. As he was considering entering this year’s race, he was hit with a $98 million dollar tax bill dating back from 2005.
Speaking from New York recently, Noboa said Correa is using Ecuador’s tax authority to
“Correa doesn’t want to face real opposition,” Noboa said. “It’s like something out of North Korea, Syria or Cuba — he’s using all means available to keep people from participating in the election.”
The national tax authority, or SRI, did not respond to multiple requests for information.
According to Cedatos’ October poll, Noboa would only garner about 2 percent of the vote.
But Noboa insists his numbers are higher, and that any weakness in his campaign is the
direct result of Correa’s attacks in the state-run media.
“Correa controls the press, he controls the [National Election Council], and he has great
influence over the court,” Noboa said. “Anyone who opposes him ends up in a very difficult situation.”
While the field is tilted in Correa’s favor, the opposition has also failed to present a
compelling alternative, said Simon Pachano, a political science professor at Ecuador’s
Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences, or FLACSO.
“We still don’t have an opposition with credible proposals,” Pachano said. “And people are likely to think ‘Why should I risk it with some other candidate if the president we have has done a relatively good job — at least compared to previous administrations.’”
If Correa doesn’t win in the first round, however, and the opposition rallies behind a single candidate in the runoff, “then that could be difficult for him,” Pachano said.
While Correa’s candidacy is strong, it does have its weak spots. Correa’s combative
attitude with the United States and multinational firms have hurt foreign investment and
threaten the country’s U.S. trade benefits. In addition, rising crime, corruption charges and his penchant for suing and fining the press, have opened him up to attacks.
But Correa has been fighting back, accusing the opposition of being beholden to big
business and willing to dismantle the social safety nets his administration has created.
Noboa admits that some might be blinded by his wealth, but insists he’s a center-left
candidate who wants to harness the power of the private sector to help the poor.
“The true enemies of the poor are totalitarian Latin-American leaders and corrupt
politicians,” he said, “not businessmen.”
One of Lasso’s flagship proposals was to increase the monthly cash subsidy paid to the
elderly and poor from $35 to $50.
Correa seized the idea from him and has a bill before congress that would finance the
increase by taxing banking profits.
Lasso said the move was a direct attack on his candidacy and the banking industry, where
he still holds sway. It’s also another sign the government is willing to go to any length to win the election, he said.
“This law is an act of revenge,” he said. “But thank God I wasn’t a baker or he would have
confiscated the profits of all bakers… It isn’t a serious way to participate in politics.”