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Ecuador Update: Presidential Race Heats Up

Ecuador's electoral runoff is April 2

Ecuador's runoff is April 2. (AP)

March 15, 2017

Guillermo Lasso and Lenín Moreno are polling in a statistical dead heat ahead of Ecuador's Apr 2 presidential vote.
There's an Ecuadoran constitutional measure called "crossed death"—Correa's threatened to use it if oppo wins Apr 2

Updated March 20 — Campaigning is underway in Ecuador in the hotly contested April 2 runoff to replace the outgoing President Rafael Correa. After coming in second in the February 19 first-round vote, the Creating Opportunities party candidate Guillermo Lasso has seen his narrow lead in polls halved and as he and rival Lenín Moreno of the ruling party fall into a statistical dead heat. After 13 percent of voters who said they'd cast null votes are factored out, Lasso's margin stands at 1.6 points, or at 50.8 percent to Moreno’s 49.2 percent—well within the 3.4 percent margin of error in the Cedatos poll released March 16. A more recent poll from Diagnóstico showed Moreno up by 12 points over Lasso, but was conducted in just four of Ecuador's 24 provinces, while the Cedatos poll was conducted in 15. In another Cedatos poll taken in days after the first vote, Lasso's margin stood at 4.2 points over the PAIS Alliance candidate.

Lasso corrals support

Now Lasso, a former banker who took in 28.1 percent of votes in February, is working to consolidate support cast for other candidates in the first round. Third-place finisher Cynthia Viteri (16.3 percent) endorsed Lasso on the evening of the first-round results before the runoff was even certain. Fourth-place candidate Paco Moncayo (6.7 percent) also put his support behind Lasso, although he took a couple more weeks to do so.

Moreno almost won the first-round vote outright with 39.4 percent of ballots, which is just below the 40 percent threshold needed with more than a 10 percent gap over the next-strongest candidate. But he has yet to up his support much for the second round. Iván Espinel—who, at 33, was Ecuador's youngest presidential candidate ever—is the lone first-round candidate (3.2 percent) who's joined Moreno's campaign in return for a spot in the former vice president’s administration should he win.

While the outcome is far from certain, Ecuadoran voters themselves are much more sure of their choice heading into the runoff. Whereas a full 40 percent of voters remained undecided in the weeks leading up to the February vote, this time more than 80 percent say they already know who they’ll choose in April. That voters are less likely to be moved in the last weeks of the race could be welcome news for the campaigns, which are both battling negative messaging.

Both campaigns plagued by bad news

Jorge Glas, Moreno's running mate on the PAIS Alliance ticket and Correa's current vice president, is mired in the sprawling Odebrecht corruption scandal, in which the Brazilian construction firm paid bribes to a host of governments in Latin America, including in Ecuador to the tune of $33.5 million. In a leaked video, a former minister accused Glas of accepting bribes while heading Petroecuador, the state oil company. Lasso has made repeated requests for the attorney general to look into Glas' involvement; Glas, for his part, says he welcomes the investigation as he has nothing to hide.

Meanwhile, the Correa administration is working to make sure people tie Lasso to a different scandal: the financial crisis of 1998 to 1999. On March 8, some Ecuadorans protested against Lasso as they marked the eighteenth anniversary of the event, when two out every five of the country’s banks shut down and the banking system collapsed, leading to losses of 20 percent of GDP and a large emigration wave. At the time, Lasso was president of Guayaquil Bank, which did not close. Correa and his colleagues contend that Lasso profited off of the crisis and his close ties with the president at the time, though Lasso was never charged with any impropriety. 

Correa's legacy in the balance

Whether or not the rest of voters who didn't take to the streets are convinced by Correa's campaigning, though, is another question. In January, two out of three Ecuadorans said they don't trust the president's word, and his disapproval numbers are up to 52 percent after staying below 40 percent for most of his ten years in office.

As his approval numbers drop, Correa is all the more intent on preserving the legacy of his decade in office. Unable to run in this year's election, he promised he's going to spend time in his wife's native Belgium for a time after the election. But, if the opposition should win the executive and "destroy everything we've worked for," he warned that an obscure constitutional measure known as "crossed death" could be invoked in which the executive dissolves the legislative branch, then resigns him or herself, and special elections are held to replace both branches. "The best way for them to keep me far away is to behave," Correa said. "If they don’t, I'll come back and I'll beat them again." In response, Lasso said he took Correa's comments as an implicit acknowledgement that the opposition is going to win.

Glas, for his part, is also already considering his life post-politics. He said that after his political career is over, he plans to go back to being an engineer