When Ecuadorian voters take to the ballot boxes on Sunday they will have the chance to vote yes or no on seven fairly straightforward questions. Behind this consulta popular, however, lies a decade’s worth of political maneuvering, the split of the country’s ruling party, and two very different possibilities for the future of the nation.
President Lenin Moreno proposed the referendum last October, hailing it as a “victory for the people.” A popular vote, according to Moreno, allows typical citizens to shape the country’s decisions, in turn strengthening Ecuador’s democracy. The seven questions vary widely in subject matter. For example, Question 4 asks voters to remove the statute of limitations in cases of sexual abuse against children, and will likely pass with overwhelming majority. More controversial is Question 2, which would amend the Ecuadorian constitution to prevent government officials from running for reelection more than once.
The story—and controversy—behind Question 2 begin with Moreno’s predecessor, Rafael Correa. Correa, who took office in 2007, is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist and economist who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. During his presidency, Correa implemented a series of left-wing policies, defaulted on bonds owed to foreign entities, and dramatically increased public sector spending. While Correa’s policies never went as far as those of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia, he did consider both men allies. Correa also had a fraught relationship with the media and imposed a number of restrictions on the free press; as a result, the research group Freedom House named Ecuador the third-worst country for press freedom in the Americas, ahead of only Cuba and Venezuela.
Correa also oversaw the construction of a new Ecuadorian constitution, the country’s twentieth. The Montecristi Constitution, passed in 2008, espoused Correa’s left-wing principles. For example, it permanently banned extraction of non-renewable resources in protected areas, guaranteed free public education, and limited the role that international entities could play in the country’s trade disputes. For the traditionally conservative Catholic country, the constitution is also socially liberal, explicitly outlining rules for gender equality in the workplace and legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples. On paper, Correa was a man of the people, but his actions led many to question whether the president was more concerned with his personal interests.
The constitution also stipulated that the president and other high-ranking officials were not allowed to hold more than two terms. Correa did exactly that, winning reelection in 2009 and 2013. A partial term served between 2007 and 2009 didn’t count toward his total. In 2015, the National Assembly—composed primarily of members of Correa’s party—voted to amend the constitution, repealing the presidential term limits. The repeal, however, came with one important stipulation: the amendment would not take effect until 2021. In accordance with the constitution, Correa didn’t seek reelection in 2017, although many expected him to be a candidate once again in 2021. The referendum now puts this possibility into question.
Moreno replaced Correa when he was elected president by a narrow margin in May of 2017. The two men are from the same party, Alianza Pais, which Correa founded in 2006, and Moreno actually served as Correa’s Vice President from 2007 until 2013. But if Moreno was expected to maintain Correa’s legacy until the former president could run for reelection again in 2021, nobody told him that. In his first months in office, he embarked on a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, targeting many former members of Correa’s administration. Among those implicated was Vice President Jorge Glas, accused of taking millions in kickbacks from the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. Though Correa fiercely defended Glas, who had been in office since 2013, the Vice President was stripped of his powers in August and sentenced to six years in jail in December. Moreno has also quietly begun to roll back some of Correa’s restrictions on the private sector and has cultivated a better relationship with Ecuador’s independent media outlets.
While Moreno had shown for months that he was neither a Correa clone nor a puppet, it wasn’t until October that he truly pitted himself against his predecessor. On October 2, Moreno proposed the referendum which, if passed, would prevent Correa from running for president again. Moreno, on the other hand, would still be allowed to run for reelection in 2021.
Unsurprisingly, Correa was not happy about Moreno’s proposal. After vigorously expressing his displeasure on social media, the former president returned to Ecuador at the end of November to actively campaign against the referendum (he had been residing in Belgium, where his wife is from, since the end of his term). Since his return, he has openly called the referendum unconstitutional and accused Moreno of actively trying to destroy his legacy. On January 16, he and about two dozen of his political allies withdrew themselves from the Alianza Pais on the grounds that the party was run by traitors.
Moreno, for his own part, maintains that the referendum is simply a platform for the Ecuadorian people, but there is little doubt that the vote has extra meaning for both the current president and his predecessor. Both men have political agendas, and neither is naïve about the other’s intentions. While Moreno’s approval rating has skyrocketed to almost 75 percent, Correa remains the charismatic man who brought a socialist revolution to Ecuador. Current polls indicate that the majority of Ecuadorian voters support reinstating presidential term limits, although polling predictions were mostly inaccurate in the country’s most recent election.
The fate of the Ecuadorian presidency remains undecided, but one thing is for sure: the real referendum this weekend isn’t about seven questions. It’s about two men, two presidents, and the future of Ecuadorian democracy.