Ecuador set to re-elect Correa

QUITO — In a room in a fashionable bar here in Ecuador's capital, a series of presidential portraits lines the walls. Under each picture, a brass plaque details how many years, months and days each of them governed. Most survived a year, some just a few months.

The last place has no portrait, but the plaque bears the name of Ecuador’s current president, Rafael Correa. Underneath, a clock counts his days in office, predicting he too will suffer a similar demise.

Ecuador has a history of short presidential terms: It has had eight presidents in less than 13 years. But Correa has a strong chance of breaking the mold. Polls show him comfortably ahead just before a general election — which will take place Sunday, April 26 — that should guarantee him another four years in power.

Regarded as the strongest leader to emerge in Ecuadorian politics in decades, Correa swept to power in 2007 claiming he would launch a "citizen's revolution." In two years, he has reached a level of electoral security unimaginable to previous incumbents.

His greatest achievement has come in rewriting the constitution, which has given more rights to the poor, women, indigenous communities, and which emphasizes environmental rights — as well as now allowing presidents to run for two consecutive four-year terms.

The approval of the constitution has allowed him to start again and run for president at a time when his popularity is riding high. Polls give him 50 percent of the vote in the race, acres ahead of his nearest rivals: former president Lucio Gutierrez, who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2005 on accusations of corruption and nepotism, and Alvaro Noboa, a banana tycoon.

The question now is not so much whether he will win but by how much — and whether his popularity will allow him to secure a majority in the newly created National Assembly, analysts say.

Correa has gained popularity by spending billions on social projects that include a monthly $35 allowance for the country’s poorest, as well as free schoolbooks and uniforms and investment in health clinics.

"For the first time in this country it's not only the establishment that are candidates. It was only to Rafael Correa that it occurred to present to you citizens for you to nominate so that you could choose your own candidates," Luisa Maldonado, who is running as a councilor for Quito with Correa’s Alianza Pais party, told a group of indigenous peasants at a gathering in a barrio high above the capital. "Today, thanks to a democratic process, we can have candidates of the people, working together with you. People who know the reality and how difficult life is."

Maldonado told GlobalPost that Correa’s popularity stemmed from his instigation of a participatory democracy movement that was more inclusive, and which represented a departure from Ecuador’s traditionally nepotistic politics. “Before, when a councilor got into power the first question they would ask is ‘what job can I get for my son?’” she said.

But Correa’s detractors point to what they call signs of undemocratic tendencies. Correa has dismantled the unions and the indigenous movement that previously held influence, said Pablo Andrade, a political scientist at the Simon Bolivar Andean University in Quito.

Others say that Correa is a populist who uses his handsome looks and fiery rhetoric to stoke nationalistic and anti-American sentiments.

He certainly makes himself highly visible. Each Saturday, he travels to a different village to hold televised cabinet meetings.

"The people have an impression that 'he is one of us,' " said Hugo Barber, director of Perfiles Opinion, a Quito-based polling firm. "In the past there was always a great distance. There's a permanent coming and going, coming and going with the people. It's a type of conversation which even if it isn't genuine is still a conversation."

Correa is often linked with the Latin American leftist movement spearheaded by Hugo Chavez, but analysts say he is altogether more pragmatic than his Venezuelan counterpart.

“The personal relationship between Correa and Chavez is warm, but government-to-government relations are not especially close,” Andrade said. 

“He has his own project which is to have free hands. He doesn't want to tie himself either with the United States or with Venezuela. Pragmatically he has made alliances with Venezuela when he has needed to but he has distanced himself in other things such as in the commercial negotiations with the European Union.”

His enthusiasm to invite foreign investment in mining, for example, has marginalized a strong environmental movement, and he has also been courting trade pacts with the European Union alongside his right-wing neighbors Colombia and Peru.

How long Correa will be able to maintain his popularity will depend on whether he can ride out the financial storm that many are predicting Ecuador will suffer this year.

Correa, who has an economics degree from the University of Illinois, announced in December of last year that Ecuador would be defaulting on its international debts because of irregularities in the contracts that were signed.

"In Ecuador debt is seen as the number one enemy of the country's progress and it is believed that many mistakes were made during the negotiations for that external debt and that those who participated broke many laws," said Magdalena Barreiro, a former economy and finance minister and professor at the San Franciso of Quito University. "It's absolutely political. It doesn't mean to say that incorrect things in the negotiation of debt were not committed but that should not fall on the current debt holders."

Correa's opponents in the presidential race have made little impression on the electorate. Noboa and Gutierrez have few coherent policies aside from criticizing Correa. Gutierrez is running on an anti-corruption platform, which has not sat well considering he was expelled from office for those reasons, Andrade said.

Correa's main threat would appear to be the impending economic crisis that is likely to hit this oil-producing country following the dramatic decline in oil prices. Ecuador suffered a financial collapse in 1999, after which the country sought stability by switching its currency to the U.S. dollar.

Correa, who has in the past said that he would like to switch back to the sucre, has nonetheless insisted that he will remain with the dollar for the time being, though he has not been able to quash rumors that he may do otherwise.

"He's not sending out clear signals as to his objectives and intentions," Barreiro said. "One day the president goes out very annoyed saying that this government has done lots to maintain the dollarization and that he is indignant about the rumors, but two weeks previously he had referred to the dollarization as shameful."

If he can ride out the economic crisis Correa may be able keep that clock running for some time yet.

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