According to preliminary projections, Alberto Acosta, the presidential candidate of the Plurinational Coordinating Body for the Unity of the Left, won about 3.5 percent of the vote in Ecuador’s February 17 presidential elections. In contrast, earlier analyses showed a solid base of support of around 5 percent. Given that Acosta was a known, respected, and valued figure, he should have polled an additional 5 percent of the vote. A vote of about 10 percent would have placed the left that is in opposition to Rafael Correa’s government in a strong position. The actual outcome undoubtedly weakens and polarizes the political landscape between the government and the ideological right as represented by the conservative banker candidate Guillermo Lasso. How should we understand this disappointing result? In this article I intend to make a brief electoral analysis; to unravel deeper political meanings and draw out their consequences requires consideration of many other elements.
In electoral terms, Acosta’s nomination did not have many opportunities to gain support on the coast except in Esmeraldas. Among the popular sectors he remained a relatively unknown candidate (35 percent of voters did not know who he was). We expected to capture some of the electorate seduced by Rafael Correa’s proposals but dissatisfied with their limits. Acosta demanded radical approaches to recover the original intent of the Citizens’ Revolution. In particular, he focused no the redistribution of water and land, a rejection of large-scale mining, and limits on petroleum extraction in the southern Amazon. A small but significant electorate could have been mobilized by the radicalization of a transformative agenda. But these agendas did not gain traction, and the rejection of large-scale mining was not decisive in gaining support of the electorate in affected areas such as the southern highlands and the Amazon. It turned out that these issues were secondary to the importance placed on the return of the state. Other policy proposals that defined Rafael Correa’s campaign, such as public education, health care, or the character of the university, were too sophisticated to be properly understood in the context of an electoral campaign. The truth is that both the popular sectors and the left are too defined by decades dedicated to fighting against the privatization of public services to focus on the details of the type of state institutions that a real revolution would have to build.
Another failure was much more decisive in electoral terms. The nomination of Alberto Acosta had a chance to seduce a moderately progressive, middle-class electorate that was traditionally center-left. This group rejected the criminalization of social protest, increased authoritarianism, and the governmental and personal arrogance of the president. This electorate was upset by the disrespect for minimal standards of independence for the functions of the state, and for freedom of expression and organization. The popular sectors and the poorest voters, however, could not care less about these issues. The electorate that was concerned with such issues was located predominantly in the highlands and in the cities.
Many think that the electorate was turned off because of the burden of a bad image of the historical left, especially the MPD (Popular Democratic Movement), and due to an erosion of the credibility of the Indigenous movement. Undoubtedly this may have been an influence, but it should have been countered with the positive image Acosta presented as the presidential candidate. This, however, proved to be an extraordinarily secondary concern. It was so secondary in fact that, according to available data, the list of deputies for the National Assembly, led by Lourdes Tibán, and that for the Andean Parliament, led by Jorge Scale, polled more votes than did Alberto Acosta. From what we know so far, at least from the quick count that Citizen Participation conducted, in almost all provinces, the lists for provincial deputies from the Leftist Coordinating Body polled a higher percentage of votes than the presidential candidate. This needs to be confirmed, but I have not found any province where the vote for president was higher than the percentage of the vote for the provincial assembly. In a word, the individual parties unified in the Leftist Coordinating Body had more votes than Alberto Acosta, which shows that if the “bad company” he kept took votes away from him, it was significantly less important than other factors. How can one explain the paradox that a candidate with a much better image than the parties in his coalition gains fewer votes than the coalition?
The best way to shed light on this mystery is that for the first time in my memory, the political right (Guillermo Lasso) won more votes in highland province of Pichincha where the capital city of Quito is located than in the coastal province of Guayas which is home to the largest city of Guayaquil. Based on very preliminary data, Lasso received a slightly higher percentage of the vote in the highland provinces than on coast except for Azuay (which was lower), and Esmeraldas and El Oro (that was higher). This is a rarity in recent Ecuadorian electoral history. The hypothesis is this: not only did Rafael Correa win a share of the electorate that traditionally voted for the right on the coast, but Guillermo Lasso also managed to gain part of the vote that traditionally votes for the center-left in the highlands. A potential electorate in favor of Alberto Acosta eventually voted against Rafael Correa. They preferred a useful or strategic vote. In the manner of Andrés Páez, the electorate felt that the struggle against authoritarianism was more important than an economic model or redistribution efforts.
Since in electoral terms the left was not able to make a convincing case for something different and better than Rafael Correa, now we have to pay the political price for that failure. Losing is not synonymous with being wrong. But we are mistaken if we do not learn from our defeats. I am convinced that even though we lost this battle we have a chance to grow and become stronger for the struggles ahead. But we lost and the government will have one more argument to delegitimize our resistance and our proposals. More than anything, the Left must reinvent itself. We have no future if we remain anchored and dependent on the highland middle classes, are absent on the coast, and distant from the masses. Correa’s Alianza País won by forging a personalistic leadership. The left can only do something different and better if we build our organization and leadership from below.