Lenin Moreno came out with a triumphant 38 percent of the vote in the first round of Ecuador’s 2017 presidential elections on Sunday, just two points shy of the 40 percent that would have been required to make him president on the spot.
Instead, Lenin will be continuing on the campaign trail for two more months against runner-up Guillermo Lasso, a conservative who exit polls estimate took in around 30 percent of the vote. He will be hard pressed to come out ahead of Moreno in the second round.
But Lenin faces a battle that extends far beyond Ecuador. Moreno would come into office a left-leaning president on a continent that has largely turned its back on the soft socialism — or “pink tide” — that shaped most of its major economies at the turn of the century. In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff dropped the gauntlet handed to her by predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva when she was impeached last summer. In Argentina, Cristina Fernández ended 12 years of her party’s rule when she lost out to neoliberal candidate Mauricio Macri. In Chile, corruption scandals threaten to bring down Michelle Bachelet this year, and Venezuela is facing a full-on crisis as opposition parties seek to toss out Hugo Chávez protege, Nicolás Maduro.
Suffice to say, it’s not a great time to be a Democratic Socialist in South America.
Yet here comes Lenin Moreno, with such a commanding lead that it’s more likely than not that Rafael Correa’s PAIS Alliance will retain its grip on the Ecuadorian presidency next year. That return to the nation’s highest office jars with his previous statement when leaving it in 2013 to become the United Nations’ special envoy on disability, when he told a reporter from The Guardian that he was glad to get out of the spotlight. He left office with a 90 percent approval rating.
“Power comes with a stroke of fortune and you should quickly leave it behind… Here you see me on the verge of exiting office. I’m happy. I don’t enjoy being president. I don’t like power. I like to be subordinate. I like to feel dominated like I am at home by my wife and three daughters.”
While his counterparts around the continent left office amid growing economic instability, those shockwaves are unlikely to hit Lenin’s Ecuador according to The Nation. Since 2007, Correa has achieved a 38 percent reduction in poverty and a 47 percent reduction in extreme poverty. A recent piece analyzing the state of the country’s economy in the left-leaning publication found rising higher education enrollment and decreasing inequality have marked the last decade. Those positive trends are despite the global financial crisis and a drop in oil prices that should have brought the country down.
“The most important decision in bringing about Ecuador’s current economic recovery was also perhaps the most unorthodox: The government imposed a variety of tariffs on imports under the World Trade Organization’s provision for emergency balance-of-payments safeguards. This reduction of imports in 2015-16 added about 7.6 percentage points to GDP during those years. This counteracted spending cuts that the government had to make as revenues crashed.”
Not everyone paints such a rosy portrait. Correa hovers around a 40 percent approval rating, and the IMF projects the economy to shrink this year just like it did in 2016. Moreno must also convince constituents that he will not allow China to walk over environmental regulations in order to pursue oil and mining interests. Just like his left-wing counterpart Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, his government has also lost its hold on the middle class, partially due to high taxes, media regulation and bureaucracy that many, including his opponent Lasso, see as authoritarian. Her chosen successor, Daniel Scioli, also won the first round of voting before losing out to Macri in a run-off.
Lenin also benefits from a backstory that captures the hearts of ordinary Ecuadorians. A paraplegic since being shot by two thieves in 1998, Moreno was nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in bringing dignity to the handicapped. During his time as the nation’s vice president, he has implemented programs that give the disabled free prosthetic limbs, a $300 monthly stipend, access ramps around capital city Quito and a law that requires businesses to set aside four percent of jobs for the disabled. Sarita Carlosama, an Ecuadorian paraplegic who had to drop out of medical school because there was no wheelchair access to her classroom, found a job in accounting due to the new law, reported Public Radio International.
“He has achieved so much. But even if he hadn’t done anything, just the fact that the vice president is in a wheelchair changes perceptions about disabled people.”
The likely president credits laughter — through memorizing jokes, watching comedies and creating a joyous home environment — with getting him moving around in a wheelchair, Lenin told official government media El Cuidadano.
“If we remove ourselves from our situation we can see that other dimension. Humor has a license to stretch more. Its limits are not to be crossed – otherwise it becomes dull or perversely deceiving and gross.”
Internationally, Ecuador is perhaps best known for harboring Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy for the past five years. Lenin Moreno is likely to keep him there, though his competitor Guillermo Long has been clear that he has no such intentions, saying in an interview with The Guardian that the long-term guest would be given 30 days to leave. Given his rival’s strong performance in the first round of voting, that scenario seems less and less likely.
[Featured Image by AP Photo]