This year marks the 30th anniversary of the iconic 1988 Chilean national plebiscite that sought to end Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship and restore a civilian government for the first time in 16 years. On February 4, Ecuadoreans will head to the polls to cast their vote in a referendum that could prove just as decisive as the one in Chile almost 30 years ago. The vote is considered decisive for the government of President Lenin Moreno, who has been condemned by former President Rafael Correa and the majority of the party's militants and activists for failing to honour promises to continue the policies of the Citizens' Revolution.
The referendum campaign has been divided between the "Yes" and "No" sides. The former is headed by President Lenin Moreno, elected in April 2017 with the support of Rafael Correa and the PAIS Alliance party. The "No" campaign is primarily led by Correa and the Citizens' Revolution Movement, which formed as a result of the pro-Correa split within PAIS Alliance. Twenty-eight members of the National Assembly elected in April 2017 as part of PAIS Alliance have chosen to break away from the party and join Correa's newly founded political movement.
The referendum, referred to as a "popular consultation," will consist of seven questions, three of which deal directly with reversing reforms enacted under Correa. Question 2 asks the participants whether to reverse the constitutional change that allowed indefinite re-election to public office. Question 3 seeks to change the current structure of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), as well as to terminate the constitutional term of its current members. Question 6 seeks to repeal the tax on the speculation of land and real estate, implemented by Correa's administration and strongly opposed by large landowners and property developers.
The question of preventing indefinite re-election, while adhering to the initial principles of the 2008 Montecristi constitution, is a cynical measure designed to prevent Rafael Correa from standing in the 2021 presidential elections. The law is also not expected to affect major opposition figures, who have been consistently allowed to stand for re-election without any constraints.
The proposed change to the CPCCS would reduce the established terms of the committee that oversees the selection of the attorney general, electoral council, comptroller general and other positions within the civil, electoral and juridical service. Furthermore, the referendum question proposes the removal of the current members of the CPCCS, and their replacement by a "transitory" committee appointed directly by the president, thus effectively giving Moreno direct oversight of the future direction and political alignment of these bodies.
Finally, the removal of the speculation tax would provide the biggest concession yet to the right-wing opposition. The measure was initially introduced by Correa's administration in May 2015 as a way of targeting super profits from the sale of land and real estate by the wealthiest two percent of the population, and as a means of reducing an increasing budget deficit brought on by the collapse.
The tax was violently opposed by every major opposition party and figure with ties to the banking industry, the right-wing Social Christian Party, such as Jaime Nebot, and the landowner and property developer elites, such as Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas and the Prefect of Azuay Paul Carrasco.
Finally, the manner in which the consultation was called by President Moreno marks a sharp authoritarian turn from the established norms. While the previous popular consultations and referendums of 2011 and 2017 received the approval of Ecuador's Constitutional Court before being formally convened, Moreno's government chose to effectively bypass the court by using several measures. First, it utilised a loophole which states that the court must approve or reject the referendum question within a 20-day period, otherwise its silence can be interpreted as de-facto approval. Following the expiration of the 20-day period, the court called for public hearings to assess the validity of the referendum's questions, which Moreno further chose to ignore, while simultaneously receiving the backing of the country's private and public media.
Moreno also proposed that the Constitutional Court approve the referendum questions, and that two of the court's judges be investigated and sanctioned for voicing their opposition to this measure.
A Legacy Dismantled
For many supporters of former President Rafael Correa, the referendum marks yet another attempt by the increasingly right-wing administration of Lenin Moreno to dismantle the legacy and the achievements of the country's 10-year-long process of change. Since being elected on the platform of continuing the left-wing economic policies of the Correa administration in May 2017, Moreno has undertaken a number of actions that won praise from the right-wing political opposition. Commencing a "national dialogue" of reconciliation, he proceeded to foster closer cooperation with members of the opposition such as Jaime Nebot and Abdala Bucaram Jr., going as far as appointing individuals close to the latter's family. At the same time, he began to mimic the opposition's previous rhetoric about high levels of public debt and corruption, after criticising the 10-year period of Correa's administration (during six of which he served as his vice-president) for economic mismanagement and excessive public and social spending.
He then proceeded to replace the administrations of public newspaper El Telegrafo and the publicly owned Ecuador TV in July 2017. The control and distribution of electronic cash, long demanded by Ecuador's financial and corporate sector, was then transferred from the hands of the Central Bank of Ecuador to the Association of Private Banks. Most prominent of all, he supported the corruption allegations regarding now-dismissed Vice-President Jorge Glas, seen by many as a staunch loyalist of Correa.
Despite an almost complete lack of evidence, Glas was accused of receiving bribes from Brazilian construction company Odebrecht and put in preventive detention in December 2017, pending an appeal. Moreno previously stripped him of all the official duties and posts of vice-president in August 2017, before Maria Alejandra Vicuña officially replaced Glas in January 2018. The entire scandal was reminiscent of the "parliamentary coup" that previously brought down President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, and was a way of purging the cabinet of any dissent to Moreno's policy turn.
The reactionary nature of Moreno's government becomes more apparent when analysing the different groups and individuals that have pledged to support the "Yes" vote for each question. Prominent political figures on the right, such as Jaime Nebot and the Social Christian Party, Guillermo Lasso and the conservative CREO party, and former President Abdala Bucaram, who was removed from office on the grounds of and embezzlement, have all actively campaigned in support of the "Yes" vote. The private media outlets that have traditionally opposed Correa's government and played a prominent role during the 2010 coup, such as the newspapers El Commercio, El Universo and TV stations Ecuavsia and Teleamazonas, have also been broadcasting messages and adverts in support of the "Yes" campaign.
Recent events in the province of Esmeraldas also demonstrate what a victory for "Yes" could mean for the future. Giving an interview at Radio Magia in the city of Quininde, Correa was mobbed by local members of the opposition, who surrounded the radio station, vandalised his caravan car and threatened his bodyguards. The attack was heavily criticised by left-wing activists and leaders throughout Ecuador and Latin America, particularly in Bolivia. The attack was allegedly conducted by militants of the MPD, an offshoot of the Maoist-oriented group during the 2017 presidential elections.
The whole episode can be contrasted with the events of September 30, 2010, when Correa was seized by members of the police force and held in a military hospital in Quito. The current supporters of the "Yes" campaign seem more than willing to resort to violent tactics that have become closely associated with the most vicious elements.
The comparisons between the plebiscite in Chile and the referendum in Ecuador may seem out of place at first glance. After all, Moreno was initially elected on the platform of continuing the socialist legacy of Rafael Correa, while Pinochet's regime carried out the most brutal form of free-market neoliberalism combined with repression and the forced disappearances of over 30,000 Chileans. However, a closer look at the economic and political forces aligned behind both men, as well as the increasingly authoritarian nature of Moreno's government, makes the comparison frighteningly accurate. While the old economic elites, former neoliberal presidents, bankers and landowners have thrown their weight behind the "Yes" campaign, the "No" vote has been primarily led by veteran leaders of the Citizens' Revolution who remain loyal to its ideas of overturning neoliberalism and establishing a plurinational socialist state based on the values of "Good Living."
Should Moreno and his new allies emerge victorious on February 4, it is unlikely he would immediately use the security service to kidnap, torture or assassinate left-wing activists and militants. However, it would mark a serious step backwards for progressive change not only in Ecuador, but throughout the continent already increasingly under threat from the resurgent right-wing political forces in Argentina, Brazil and Chile.