The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Can Correa chart a democratic path?


OUR OPINION: Election win an opportunity to deepen democracy in Ecuador

The voting is over in Ecuador and President Rafael Correa has won a third term. Election monitors from the Organization of American States have reported no major irregularities. That’s a good start; the region can ill-afford another election fiasco.

Still, opposition candidate Alvaro Noboa, whom Mr. Correa defeated 57 percent to 43 percent, has indicated that he might challenge the results, accusing Mr. Correa of rigging the election. No evidence has yet emerged but elections officials have an obligation to hear Mr. Noboa out and investigate any claims. That is what’s supposed to happen in a democracy.

Yet a valid concern is that “adhering to democratic principles” is a term that has not been heard much from the presidential palace in Quito over the last six years. Mr. Correa’s close association with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has, unfortunately, left him with some of his mentor’s bad tendencies. Among them: weakening the executive branch by centralizing power in the executive, packing the courts and stifling the media.

Many fear that trend would worsen over the next four years, particularly since Mr. Correa’s Alianza País party swept National Assembly races Sunday, giving him the ability to deepen his “ citizens revolution.”

Since he took office in 2007, the charismatic 49-year-old president has had a profound impact on his Andean nation of 14.6 million. Perhaps his greatest achievement has come in reducing the level of poverty, but the way he has done it is not a wise investment for diversifying and growing the economy. The poverty rate has dropped from 37.6 percent in 2006 to 28.6 percent in 2011, while the rate of extreme poverty fell from 16.9 percent in 2006 to 11.6 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank. The drop was fueled by massive state spending, some of it funded by borrowing from the Chinese. Almost 2 million people receive $50 per month from the government. And the public payroll has mushroomed, jumping from 16,000 to 90,000 people.

There’s more than enough reason for concern about where Mr. Correa might lead the country over the next four years. His attempts to silence the independent media have been criticized throughout the hemisphere. He has closed more than a half-dozen broadcast stations and secured multi-million dollar libel verdicts against print journalists, causing some to flee the country.

“Freedom of expression continues to be severely threatened in Ecuador,” said Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House, an organization that advocates for democracy, political freedom and human rights. “What happens in Ecuador could have negative repercussions throughout the region, which has witnessed a rapid decline in press freedom.”

Unfortunately, the conditions under which the independent media operate is not likely to get any better. Mr. Correa is hoping to push through a new bill to regulate newspaper and television content.

With Mr. Chávez sidelined by cancer, many are pointing to Mr. Correa is the heir apparent to carry the leftist mantra. As he crafts what he has called his final four-year term, it would be wise for Mr. Correa to show some restraint. The media crackdown and other attempts to curtail Ecuadorians’ freedoms serve no good purpose.

As President Correa no doubt learned as a student at the University of Illinois, checks and balances are critical to a vibrant and thriving democracy. That would be a far more fitting legacy than one of crackdowns on civil liberties and political rights.

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