Updated 2 months, 2 weeks ago

Race to replace Ecuador’s Correa begins amid corruption scandal

Ecuador kicked off its presidential campaign Tuesday amid a looming economic crisis, a lingering corruption scandal and a thirst for change that analysts say may hamper President Rafael Correa’s hopes of putting a successor into power to continue his “Citizens Revolution.”

Lenín Moreno, Correa’s handpicked candidate and one-time vice president, is leading polls ahead of the Feb. 19 race against a divided opposition. However, if he doesn’t win in the first round with at least 40 percent of the vote and a 10-point lead over his nearest rival, he’ll be forced into an April 2 runoff that could be tough.

“The government has to put all its meat on the grill for this first round,” said Sebastian Hurtado with the Quito-based political analysis group Profitas. If the opposition rallies behind a single candidate in the second round, “ it will be much more difficult,” he said.

With South America shifting to the right in 2016 — sidelining leftist leaders in Brazil and Argentina — many are looking to Ecuador’s vote to see whether the trend continues. But the Andean nation, best known for the Galapagos Islands and being one of the world’s largest banana exporters, isn’t easy to define politically.

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For the last decade, Correa, a charismatic, U.S.-trained economist with a penchant for bashing Washington and winning elections, has held sway over almost every branch of government. And despite his authoritarian streak, he’s been praised for making the nation more inclusive and revitalizing the country’s infrastructure: building hospitals, roads and schools that are the envy of the region.

Mild-mannered Moreno, 63, who has used a wheelchair since a botched robbery in 1998, is running on a platform of continuing his boss’ policies. And, so far, the promise is working.

Leading in polls

A Dec. 27 poll by the Quito-based firm Cedatos had Moreno leading with 35.6 percent of the vote, followed by former banker and center-right candidate Guillermo Lasso, with 22.3 percent. Former Congresswoman Cynthia Viteri and the center-left former mayor of Quito, Paco Moncayo, followed with 10.9 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively.

But even as the status-quo candidate is leading, the country is hungry for something new, said Cedatos President Angel Polibio Cordoba. A full 87 percent of those surveyed said they wanted change, including 70 percent who asked for “dramatic” change.

In some ways, Moreno is in a race against time. As oil prices have tanked, the administration has been able to hold off a deeper economic crisis by taking on more debt and loans against future oil exports. It’s racked up almost $14 billion in debt in 2016 alone, said Jose Hidalgo, with the conservative economic think-tank CORDES.

That has allowed the administration to keep from cutting popular social programs or laying off public-sector workers in this critical election year.

“The government’s strategy is working for Lenín Moreno, because there’s the sense that the [economic] crisis isn’t something people are feeling in their pockets yet — it’s only something analysts talk about,” Hidalgo said.

But the next president is going to have to make some unpopular moves — slash the budget, increase taxes or renegotiate the external debt — in order to keep the administration viable, he warned.

Scandals

Then there’s the cloud of corruption. Last year, news broke that at least eight current and former officials were wanted on charges of bribery and money laundering for their role in manipulating contracts with the state-run Petroecuador oil company.

At the time, the company was under the purview of Moreno’s running-mate and current Vice President Jorge Glas. President Correa has acknowledged that corruption might be an issue, but has said that the charges against Glas are part of an international smear campaign.

In addition, last month, representatives of the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht pleaded guilty in U.S. courts to paying millions of dollars in bribes for contracts in almost a dozen countries, including $33.5 million in Ecuador.

Correa has said the Odebrecht case is being used to try to skew the elections.

But corruption is on voters’ minds. The Cedatos poll from last month found voters’ top three concerns were unemployment, the economic crisis and corruption.

In a letter to clients Tuesday, the New York-based Eurasia group said the corruption charges could be a game-changer.

“While neither Glas nor Correa has been directly implicated to date, the news will increase popular perceptions of government corruption and make it all the more difficult for Moreno to distance himself from Correa during the campaign,” the group said, predicting that Lasso will win during the runoff.

Cordoba, the pollster, said much could still change. A full 47 percent of the electorate claim they’re undecided. Many voters, he speculated, are waiting to see who might emerge during the next seven weeks of campaigning to become the opposition banner-holder.

“During the 28 campaigns I’ve followed over the years,” he said, “this is one of the highest levels of undecided voters we’ve ever seen.”