Ecuador’s “Democratic Backsliding” Has Been Ongoing Since 2017, With US support

Photograph Source: Samurai Juan – CC BY-SA 2.0

On May 19, Ecuador’s right wing President Lasso announced that he would not be running in the snap presidential election that was triggered when he dissolved the National Assembly days earlier. A Washington Post article, while flattering to Lasso overall, fretted that Lasso’s move might be a form of “democratic backsliding”. In fact, democratic backsliding in Ecuador has been ongoing since 2017, and it received the enthusiastic endorsement of the Washington Post’s editorial board. Since 2017, Ecuador has been governed by right wing governments that have disregarded Ecuador’s constitution, but their subservience to Washington has assured them positive coverage in western media.

Lasso’s Muerte Cruzada maneuver

On May 17, Lasso invoked article 148 of Ecuador’s constitution which allows the President to dissolve the National Assembly and trigger snap elections for both the presidency and the National Assembly. This mechanism is referred to as “Muerte Cruzada” (mutual death) because both the president and the national assembly must face voters shortly after it is used. Everyone elected in those snap elections may only finish off what is left of the electoral term. In this case, that is roughly two years. Muetre Cruzada can only be used once per four year electoral term.  

The justification Lasso gave for using the Muerte Cruzada option was that there was an “internal shock” within the country – a justification that did not require prior approval from the Constitutional Court. (Other justifications would have required Constitutional Court approval according to article 148).    

However, Lasso’s use of Muerte Cruzada was of dubious legality when you consider that there was a presidential impeachment process underway – one that had received Constitutional Court approval to proceed. Moreover, Lasso made it undeniably obvious that preventing impeachment was his motivation as even the Washington Post reported. Ironically, the impeachment process was underway only because Lasso and his allies blocked Muerte Cruzada from being invoked by the National Assembly last year (as it can do under article 130 of the constitution, but it failed to get the 92 votes required of the 137 member assembly). Efforts to cut short Lasso’s term through a recall referendum were also blocked by electoral authorities. Despite the very broad latitude article 148 gives the president to use Muerte Cruzada based on his or her “opinion”, it’s hardly clear that it can be used simply to halt a legally-approved impeachment process that’s already underway. 

But the Constitutional Court upheld Lasso’s maneuver. That’s very unsurprising if you know that the entire Constitutional Court was illegally fired and replaced in 2018. 

Democratic Backsliding Since 2017

Lasso lost the 2017 presidential election to Lenin Moreno, but Lasso may as well have won it. Moreno ran as a loyalist to former leftwing President Rafael Correa who had been in office from 2007-2017.  But as soon as Moreno took office he governed exactly as Lasso would have and immediately received the backing of Ecuador’s rightwing mass media as he launched a brutal campaign to criminalize Correa’s political movement. Running a totally fraudulent presidential campaign as Moreno did was, by itself,  a grave example of democratic backsliding, but it was hailed as the opposite by western media.   

Moreno illegally rammed a very deceptive referendum through by decree after he took office. He simply disregarded that the Constitutional Court must approve referendum questions. Moreno benefited from both public and private media being on the same page (vilifying Correa). Perversely, Moreno also benefited, as he had during his fraudulent presidential campaign, from the poverty and crime reduction that had taken place under Correa. The referendum took place before the impact of Moreno’s neoliberal policies could be deeply felt (and eventually made Moreno about as widely hated as Lasso is today). Thus, Moreno was able to put a cheap democratic facade on a cyclical power grab. 

One of the seven unrelated referendum questions passed allowed Moreno to handpick a body (the CPCCS-T) that proceeded to act as if it were a constituent assembly that had been directly elected by voters. That Moreno would handpick the CPCCS-T was only clear if you very carefully read the annex to the question. Moreno submitted a list of 21 people to the National Assembly and it had to select seven standing and seven alternate members of the CPCCS-T from that list. And even the order in which they were listed by Moreno was important.

Moreno’s CPCCS-T was able to stack not only the judiciary but other control authorities such as prosecutors, regulators and electoral authorities. In 2019, the illegally-installed Constitutional Court judges predictably gave their blessing to actions of the CPCCS-T to whom they owed their jobs. In 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that it was fine for Lasso to bypass the National Assembly to subject Ecuador to the World Bank’s kangaroo courts (ICSID) that are loved by multinational corporations. It’s alarming that this court will be the only real check on Lasso’s power until a new government takes office. However, the nightmare Ecuadorians have lived through in their everyday lives has proven to be the real check on what Lasso can get away with. It’s what finished him politically, and it has made Lasso’s greatest nightmare very likely to come true: the return of Correaists to power.              

Pre and Post Pandemic Disaster

By October of 2019,  months before the COVID pandemic arrived, rising crime and poverty that resulted from Moreno’s policies led to huge street protests. Eight protesters were killed in 11 days. Later, during the pandemic, Moreno’s government led one of the most incompetent and disastrous responses to it in the world. Like Lasso today, in 2021 Moreno was not delusional enough to think voters would re-elected him, so he opted not to run. However, he and his allies doubled down on dirty tricks and repression against prominent Correaists who have been jailed or driven into exile.  Rafael Correa himself was prevented from running as Andres Arauz’s running mate in 2021 due to a farcical court ruling that said Correa had exerted a “psychic influence” on officials who took bribes while he was in office. The electoral authorities even banned the use of Correa’s image and voice from campaign ads. 

But while all that was going on in 2021, the US State Department singled out Moreno’s tyrannical government as one of its “Anticorruption Champions”. One thing that especially endeared Moreno to the US and western media was that in 2019 he expelled Julian Assange from Ecuador’s embassy in London. That was, of course, a blatantly lawless and corrupt act.    

Correaist Comeback

Lasso was able to prevail in 2021 thanks in large part to years democratic backsliding that tilted the electoral playing field against Correaists, but also due to the Arauz campaign’s errors. But the 2021 elections also made Correaists the largest block in the National Assembly. Despite all the political persecution, neither Moreno nor Lasso dared to make Ecuador an outright dictatorship by banning Correaists entirely. 

The rising poverty and homicide rate of Moreno years have become dramatically worse under Lasso. Under Correa the homicide rate fell by two thirds. The homicide rate is now quadruple what it was when Correa left office in 2017. Lasso’s reactionary referendum proposals, which were sold as ways to reduce crime, were rejected by voters who remember how well Correa’s progressive policies worked. 

Now, under the weight of the catastrophic democratic backsliding Moreno and Lasso have imposed on Ecuador, the unity of the Ecuadorian right has been broken. The Constitutional Court clearly cannot be trusted to restrain Lasso before the new government is elected. But if Correaists return to power – and especially if they can hold elections for another constituent assembly as they did in 2008 –  they could quickly undo all the US-approved democratic backsliding of the past six years.    

Joe Emersberger is a writer based in Canada whose work has appeared in Telesur English, ZNet and CounterPunch.