Latin America appears to be on the turn, with an electoral super-cycle looming on the horizon. Citizens of the region have often faced a polarising choice between left-wing governments whose policies are no longer sustainable, and the neoliberal alternatives that ran many of the region’s economies aground during the 1990s.

With the end of the commodity boom that powered growth throughout the 2000s, successive corruption scandals blighting ‘pink tide’ governments – including the catastrophic Odebrecht scandal that has touched almost every country in the region. Combined with the total economic and social collapse of Venezuela; the dominance of the progressive left seems to have reached an end, and the pink tide is receding.

Rafael Correa waving from presidential palace
Rafael Correa on the balcony of the presidential palace in Quito, 2014. Photo credit: Jenny Steele.

As free market-oriented countries such as Colombia and Peru continue to prosper, the continent’s three largest economies – Brazil, Argentina and Chile – have all seen left-wing governments supplanted by right-leaning administrations over the last two years.

In Ecuador, however, President Lenín Moreno is seeking to forge a path between these two ideological poles.

How does Ecuador fit into this?

The 10-year administration of Rafael Correa that ended earlier this year, was characterised by high public spending. He insisted that increasing amounts of oil revenue were redirected to the state at a time of runaway oil prices, swelling government coffers and increasing spending on new roads, hospitals and schools.

He also pursued an “anti-imperialist” foreign policy, defaulting on one third of Ecuador’s debt, expelling US diplomats, and offering asylum to Julian Assange.

Despite this, Correa’s rule was criticised for becoming increasingly authoritarian, culminating in the ratification of a new constitution in 2008 that amassed sweeping powers to himself; as well as declaring war on the media.

A decade under his rule polarised the country, and in early 2017, Ecuador faced an election as an economic crisis was looming following sustained periods of low oil prices.

The average Ecuadorian was left with no “good” choice. The vox populi had to decide whether Ecuador would continue with the same populist agenda exercised by Alianza Pais and its presidential candidate Lenín Moreno; or turn towards neoliberal rule under Guillermo Lasso.

Ecuador tricolor flag flies above presidential palace
Ecuador’s leadership has been embroiled in the Odebrecht corruption scandal. Photo credit: Jenny Steele.

Has Lenin Moreno followed in Correa’s footsteps?

Ecuador has tried to forge a third way. Lenín Moreno’s victory in a controversial election this year was at first interpreted as a continuation of Correa and the progressive left.

Nonetheless, Moreno’s decisions in office have caused a rupture in the Alianza Pais party. This internal fragmentation has sharply divided those who follow Moreno and those who still are loyal to Correa.

Moreno’s administration presents itself as one which tries to maintain the ideals of the progressive left, with a deliberate attempt to correct the flaws of similar governments. In order to achieve this, his key policies have been channeled along two fronts.

The first focuses on reducing corruption within the Alianza Pais party; the most emblematic case in this respect was the removal of Vice President Jorge Glas, Having found evidence of links to the Odebrecht scandal, in which almost every country in the region has seen its citizens implicated in murky bribery allegations relating to construction contracts, Glas has now been imprisoned while he awaits trial.

This led to a reaction from various “loyalist” members of the party, accusing Moreno of damaging Correa’s legacy. Correa himself took to Twitter, claiming that “an honest man has lost his freedom”.

Rafael Correa hombre honesto honest man Ecuador
Rafael Correa – “An honest man has lost his freedom.” Photo credit: Twitter/@MashiRafael.

The second tactic relies on organising a referendum with the intention of lessening the power of the executive branch. Correa’s constitutional changes of 2008 attempted to legalise indefinite reelection – following the examples set by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Moreno’s intention is to reinstate presidential term limits in order to remove this possibility, and pass a law preventing those who have been found guilty of corruption entering public office.

Attacked from both sides

Moreno’s performance since assuming office has led to attacks from both the right and the left. From the perspective of Correa’s followers, he has been a traitor to the principles of the party that promoted his presidential bid.

His attempts to modify the constitution, his openness to dialogue with sectors of the liberal right, and his prosecution of members of Alianza Pais has led to some claiming that Moreno’s victory has been worse outcome than would have been the case had the opposition triumphed.

On the other hand, those who are sceptical of Moreno’s performance argue that his actions are strategic and good for the party. They claim that in order for Alianza Pais to obtain more legitimacy, Moreno must distance himself from his predecessor, especially in an international scenario where the progressive left is on the wane.

Purely cosmetic changes?

That said, these changes are not particularly relevant to most Ecuadorians. While poor governance and corruption remain important obstacles to growth, and reversing a turn towards despotism remains prevalent; the economy is the real issue on which Moreno’s legitimacy will be built.

It remains to be seen what measures Moreno will take in order to attack Ecuador’s yawning fiscal deficit. With oil prices set to remain low for the foreseeable future, he must find a way to achieve growth and sustain Ecuador’s social spending, or face the wrath of a political class – most of whom, for all their differences, agree that between the progressive left and neoliberalism, there is no third way.

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