Conservative ex-banker on track to win presidential election in Ecuador

By José María León Cabrera and Anatoly Kurmanaev

Guillermo Lasso, a 66-year-old conservative former banker, was set to win Ecuador’s presidential election and beat out Andrés Arauz, a 36-year-old leftist handpicked by former President Rafael Correa.

With more than 94% of the votes counted after 10 p.m., Lasso had 52% compared with Arauz’s 47.32%, according to the Electoral Council official counting system in Ecuador. Arauz conceded defeat in a speech.

A few minutes afterward, Lasso gave his first speech as the presumed president-elect. On his Inauguration Day, he said, “we will take on the challenge of changing the destiny of our fatherland. We will work tirelessly.” Lasso promised to fulfill the promises made to Indigenous groups, environmentalist activists and women’s right organizations.

The Electoral Council said in a brief news conference that it would remain in session in case either Arauz or Lasso filed objections to the results — improbable after Arauz’s concession.

The vote signaled a desire, at least among some, to shift right following years in which Correa has held sway over the country.

“He’s been working since he was very young, and he has created jobs,” said one Lasso supporter, Diana Velasteguí, 33, the owner of several small restaurants. “That is what is required right now.”

But the vote was not just a battle between the country’s left and right. Among the hallmarks of the election this year was the emergence of the country’s long marginalized Indigenous movement as a key driver of the political conversation.

When Lasso is sworn in later this year, he will be forced to reckon with the country’s Indigenous party, Pachakutik. Pachakutik and its allies jolted the nation in the first round of voting, in February, winning half of all states, becoming the second-largest presence in Congress and transforming the agendas of the finalists in Sunday’s presidential race.

“The politics of Ecuador will never be the same,” said Farith Simon, an Ecuadorian law professor and columnist. “There’s still racism, but there’s also a re-vindication of the value of Indigenous culture, of pride in their national role.”

Since February, eager to court Indigenous voters and mindful of the need to work with the newly powerful Indigenous bloc in Congress, Arauz and Lasso had revamped their messages and shifted the contest from the polarizing socialist-versus-conservative ground that has defined national politics for years. Debates emerged instead on Ecuador’s deep-seated inequality and on an economic model reliant on the export of oil and metals extracted from Indigenous lands.

Both candidates promised to enact greater environmental safeguards and to grant Indigenous communities more say over the extraction of resources. Lasso vowed to improve economic opportunities for Indigenous people, who, despite decades of progress, lag far behind national averages in access to education, health care and jobs.

Arauz promised to lead Ecuador as a true “plurinational” country in recognition of its 15 Indigenous nations. Though largely symbolic, the designation had been sought for decades by Pachakutik, as a powerful acknowledgment of its people’s central place in Ecuador.

The rise of Pachakutik on the national stage has not only brought attention to the country’s Indigenous minority, it has also posed deeper questions of identity for the entire electorate.

Though just 8% of Ecuadorians identified themselves as Indigenous in the last census, much of the population is ethnically mixed.

“This is a difficult conversation for us as a nation, but there’s no turning back,” Simon said.

The man most responsible for the political sea change was environmental activist Yaku Pérez, the Pachakutik presidential candidate in February’s first round of voting.

Pérez, 52, narrowly missed the runoff, but he greatly broadened Pachakutik’s historical single-digit appeal with his support for women’s rights, equality for LGBTQ people and efforts to fight climate change. Pérez also backed abortion rights and same-sex marriage, creating tensions in his socially conservative Indigenous constituency.

“Pérez had an enormous capacity to open his horizons, his discourse, to incorporate themes that weren’t there” in Ecuadorian politics, said Alberto Acosta, a former Pachakutik presidential candidate.

Pérez’s rise is part of a larger generational shift in Latin America’s leftist movements. Partly driven by social media and political protests in the United States, where most Latin American nations have large diasporas, younger left-leaning politicians are prioritizing environment, gender and minority issues over the Marxist doctrine of their mentors.

In neighboring Peru, Verónika Mendoza, 40, was among the top contenders in Sunday’s presidential election, promising to grant land titles to Indigenous communities and protect the environment. In Bolivia, 34-year-old Indigenous leader Eva Copa recently won a mayor’s race in El Alto, a melting-pot city considered a bellwether.

This new generation of leaders is going beyond the traditional left-right divide, challenging their countries’ historical reliance on large mining, oil and agribusiness projects for economic growth, said Carwil Bjork-James, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

“These are big continental questions that the Indigenous movements have been asking for a long time,” Bjork-James said. “To see these questions being asked politically is a new level.”

Such a framework is shortsighted, their rivals say. South American nations have no alternative but to rely on revenue from raw materials to recover from the pandemic. And only through economic development, they say, can inequalities be fully addressed.

In Ecuador, Pérez managed to win nearly 20% of February’s vote, but his party and its allies soared from nine to 43 congressional seats in the election, becoming kingmakers in the country’s fractured 137-seat legislature.

Pachakutik’s electoral success this year traces to a wave of national protests in October 2019, when the Indigenous movement marched on the capital, Quito, to demand the repeal of a deeply unpopular cut in gasoline subsidies. The protests turned violent, claiming at least eight lives, but the government withdrew the subsidy cut after 12 days of unrest.

“We showed the country that the Indigenous people are looking for a transformation of this dominant system that only serves the most affluent,” said Diocelinda Iza, a leader of the Kichwa nation in the central province of Cotopaxi.

Pérez’s story has resonated with other Indigenous people, many of whom see the political efforts of today in the context of the five centuries since Ecuador’s colonial conquest.

“We’re not campaigning for a person,” said one Indigenous leader, Luz Namicela Contento, “but for a political project.”