Ecuador looks to left as election looms

Hal Weitzman in Latacunga, Ecuador

Rafael Correa is three hours late, and the 4,000 people in the shabby square of Latacunga, a poor highland town some 120km south of Quito, are starting to look bored.

They listen politely while a nine-year-old boy wails bolero standards precociously into a microphone.

“We have waited all our lives for this revolution,” pleads one of the organisers between songs. “Please, let’s wait a few minutes more.”

The crowd, more bemused than excited, has gathered to see the radical leftwing frontrunner in the race to be Ecuador’s next president.

Mr Correa, a former finance minister, has promised to shut the US military base in Ecuador, restructure the country’s external debt and renegotiate contracts with foreign investors in the oil industry such as Repsol of Spain, Brazil’s Petrobras, Andes Petroleum of China and Perenco of France.

While his policy platform has endeared him to voters, it has worried Wall Street and Washington – the price of Ecuador’s dollar bonds has been falling with each new rise in his popularity.

Merrill Lynch downgraded the country’s weighting in its model portfolio last week for the second time in a month, citing Mr Correa’s growing lead in the polls.

When Mr Correa eventually arrives in Latacunga, he is wildy energetic: he bounds on to the stage wearing a broad grin and clad in his campaign colours of lime green and blue.

Rock music blares and he dances and waves, pausing to accept flowers, fruit and a striped poncho.

“The political and economic elites have stolen everything from us, but they cannot steal our hope,” he begins, in Quichua, the indigenous language of the highlands. “We will take back our oil, our country, our future.”

With less than two weeks to go until the October 15 elections, Mr Correa’s support has risen quickly to 33 per cent, against 22 per cent for León Roldós, the centre-leftwinger who is his nearest rival, according to Cedatos, a respected local pollster.

Mr Correa needs 40 per cent of the vote to win outright and avoid a second round run-off in November.

It is a tall order: no presidential candidate has ever won more than 35 per cent in the first round. To do it, he will need to win more votes in rural areas from among the 40 per cent of voters who are still undecided. Unlike other allies of Hugo Chávez, the bombastic Venezuelan leader, his support is largely urban.

His visit to Latacunga is aimed at improving his showing in the countryside.

On the stump, Mr Correa is charming, enthusiastic and confident. He is also blessed with poor opposition: Mr Roldós is a wooden and awkward campaigner.

After leading the polls for many months, Mr Roldós has been steadily dropping a point a week since the start of last month.

Mr Correa has also run a well-crafted campaign that has tapped into Ecuadoreans’ hostility both to their own political class and to the US administration of President George W. Bush.

Ecuador’s Congress, dominated by traditional parties, is widely loathed, and Mr Correa has declared war on its corrupt “partidocracy”.

His Allianza País party is not fielding any Congressional candidates, leaving him free to focus on his own campaign. In office Mr Correa has promised to call an assembly to rewrite the constitution, undermining the power of the legislature.

By contrast, Mr Roldós always appears in election posters with his party’s congressional candidates, reinforcing his connection with the discredited institution.

Mr Correa has also successfully tapped into anti-US sentiment. Polls show a slim majority of voters agree with both his opposition to restarting derailed trade talks with the US and his demand that Manta, Washington’s only military base in South America, be shut.

“George W. Bush is a terrorist and a warmonger who wants to impose his will on the rest of the world,” Lenin Moreno, Mr Correa’s vice-presidential candidate, told the Financial Times.

Mr Correa said last week that Mr Chávez’s comparison of Mr Bush with Satan was unfair to the devil.

The Roldós camp is still confident it can force a second round, in which it hopes to emulate Alan García’s presidential election victory this year in Peru by attacking Mr Correa’s connection with Mr Chávez.

But attitudes towards the Venezuelan leader in Ecuador are very different from Peru. In a continent-wide survey this year by Cima, a regional pollster, 86 per cent of Ecuadorean respondents expressed admiration for Mr Chávez – a higher figure than in Venezuela itself.

The Chávez factor may not come into play if Mr Correa can win outright next week.

Back in Latacunga, Rodrigo Vizuete, a toothless man whose breath smells of alcohol, is unconvinced. “They all lie. They say they’ll help us and they never do,” he slurs. “But Correa’s still better than the others.”




October 2006

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