Ecuador’s ruling party candidate takes lead ahead of presidential vote

Ruling party candidate Lenín Moreno greets supporters in Quinidé, Ecuador, ahead of the April 2 elections. Moreno has vowed to continue the socialist policies of President Rafael Correa, who has been in power for 10 years.
Ruling party candidate Lenín Moreno greets supporters in Quinidé, Ecuador, ahead of the April 2 elections. Moreno has vowed to continue the socialist policies of President Rafael Correa, who has been in power for 10 years. Courtesy

The presidential candidate from Ecuador’s ruling party has pulled ahead in key polls ahead of the April 2 runoff that will determine the fate of the country’s decade-long “Citizens’ Revolution” and President Rafael Correa’s socialist legacy.

A series of polls released this week give Lenín Moreno, Correa’s one-time vice president, a lead over former banker Guillermo Lasso. In particular, polling firm Cedatos, whose closely-watched polls accurately predicted the Feb. 19 first-round vote, puts Moreno ahead for the first time since its runoff polling began.

In a survey released Wednesday, Cedatos said Moreno has 52.4 percent of the valid votes versus Lasso’s 47.6 percent. A month ago, Lasso had a four-point lead in the race.

Whatever the outcome, the new president is in for a rough ride, said Luis Verdesoto, a Quito-based political analyst. The new leader will likely have to engage in some dramatic and unpopular belt tightening amid deep polarization.

“Without a doubt we’re going to see a lot of instability regardless of who wins,” he said. “I think we’re in an unfortunate moment, not of national cohesion but national division.”

The campaign in the small South American nation has been unusually bitter and heated, with each side accusing the other of acting in bad faith.

Read More: Lasso talks fraud and fears in heated race

Lasso and his allies say the administration has been raiding government coffers — and using a slew of state-run media outlets — to unfairly boost Moreno’s chances. The ruling Alianza País party, meanwhile, is hammering Lasso over his past, painting him as a greedy former banker who profited from the country’s financial crisis in 1999.

Just a few weeks ago, such a tight race seemed unlikely. Although Moreno won the first round in an eight-way race handily, conventional wisdom was that Lasso would sail through the second round as his one-time opposition rivals rallied around him.

Verdesoto said that while Lasso has managed to build a coalition, he simply can’t compete with the ruling party’s populist offers like subsidized housing and cash disbursements for the poorest.

Read More: The fate of WikiLeaks’ Assange hinges on Ecuador race

“This is a fight between populism and a broad coalition,” Verdesoto said. “But it seems like [Lasso] hasn’t been able to make real inroads in the fight.”

Moreno, who has been wheelchair-bound since a botched robbery in 1998, has managed to position himself as a softer version of Correa: someone who will continue his boss’ socialist policies but without his fiery temper.

For its part, the opposition has been flying the flag of change, arguing that even as Correa helped reduce poverty and built new roads, schools and hospitals, he’s also left the country weakened economically. Opponents also have said that Correa’s decade-long rule has spawned corruption.

But as the race has dragged on, those issues have lost their potency as campaigning cudgels, said Sebastian Hurtado, with the Quito-based political consulting firm Profitas.

While government spending has managed to keep the financial crisis from being apparent on the street, the corruption allegations — revolving around bribes paid by Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht and a PetroEcuador contracting scandal — have grown stale.

Read More: A lost Incan “treasure” buried in a 400-year-old book

“We’ve been expecting more details about the Odebrecht or petroleum scandals but they never materialized,” he said. “I think a lot of people were waiting for more information, and it could have influenced voters, but it never happened.”

In that scenario, many people are taking a “devil we know” approach to the vote, he said.

In the run-up to the election, both sides have hinted at fraud, “and this narrative would undermine the legitimacy of either candidacy in the event of a contested election,” the New York-based Eurasia group said in a statement. “The latter would be more complicated for Lasso than Moreno, given the fact that Alianza País controls key institutions like the [electoral body], the constitutional court, and congress.”