On May 24, the day he took office as Ecuador’s new president, Guillermo Lasso, was seen leaving the ceremony next to Guadalupe Llori, indigenous leader and newly elected president of the National Assembly. Lasso, a conservative politician and former banker, had won the runoff against Andrés Arauz, the candidate supported by the political movement of former president Rafael Correa, who had governed the country between 2007 and 2017. Yet, Ecuador’s new political landscape offers a chance to move beyond the polarization between Correa supporters (Correístas) and opponents (Anti-Correístas). A key sociopolitical force in this regard is the indigenous movement and its political organization, Pachakutik.
The first round of Ecuador’s presidential elections took place in February 2021. On this occasion, Ecuadorians had 16 options to choose from. As most observers had expected, Andrés Arauz, the leftist candidate supported by former president Correa, and Guillermo Lasso made it into the runoff election on April 11. The Correísta candidate received 32.72% and his conservative opponent obtained 19.74% of the vote. What few had predicted, however, was that a third candidate would seriously dispute Lasso’s participation in the runoff. But with 19.39%, Yaku Pérez Guartambel, the candidate of the indigenous party Pachakutik, ultimately trailed Lasso by barely 0.65% – and doubts whether Yaku Pérez’ defeat was actually the product of irregularities in the vote counting process persist until this date. In any case, the fact that the second ever presidential candidate with an indigenous background almost made it to the second round came as a big surprise. In the 2006 presidential elections, Pachakutik’s then-candidate Luis Macas had received barely 2.19% of the vote (see Table 1).
|Presidential Candidate Supported By Pachakutik||Results (in %)|
|Luis Macas (2006)||2.19%|
|Alberto Acosta (2013)||3.26%|
|Paco Moncayo (2017)||6.71%|
|Yaku Pérez (2021)||19.39%|
Table 1: Results of presidential candidates supported by Pachakutik (table made by author)
Pachakutik’s electoral success also extended to the parliamentary elections, which took place simultaneously with the first round of the presidential vote. Again, the Correísta movement Union for Hope (UNES) won the most seats, 49 out of 137. But this time, Pachakutik came in second and gained 27 seats. The social-democratic party Izquierda Demócratica – whose presidential candidate Xavier Hervas also received a surprisingly high level of support (15.68%) – won another 18 seats, while the two right-wing parties, Lasso’s CREO movement and the Partido Social Cristiano (PSC) hold only 12 and 18 seats in the new National Assembly, respectively (see Table 2).
|Political force||Number of seats|
|Partido Social Christiano||17|
Table 2: Formation of the elected National Assembly (table made by author)
The strength of Pachakutik also played a crucial role in deciding the runoff. In fact, by successfully calling on their supporters to invalid their votes, Pachakutik and Yaku Pérez became in a sense a (virtual) third candidate against Arauz and Lasso. With 17%, the share of spoilt votes reached a historically unprecedented level, and its distribution throughout the country clearly shows a correlation between support for Yaku Pérez in the first round and the null votes in the runoff. In some provinces, in which the indigenous party has a strong following, the spoilt vote even came in second place. It is this high share of invalid votes that made it possible for Lasso to win the presidency with an absolute number of votes – even though he received less votes (in absolute numbers) than he did in the 2017 runoff elections (which he lost).
In sum, the results from the elections show that a majority of the Ecuadorian population didn’t want a return to the politics from the Correa government. At the same time, however, only a relatively small minority – of almost 20% – supports the socially conservative and politico-economically neoliberal alternative represented by Lasso. As a consequence, third actors – and Pachakutik in particular – will be key sociopolitical forces determining the fate of the Lasso presidency.
Pachakutik – a third way
Pachakutik was created in 1995 as a political instrument to represent the indigenous movement organized in the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), in alliance with other social movements. While CONAIE has traditionally considered the party as its “political arm”, Pachakutik always aimed at not only representing Ecuador’s indigenous people, but at uniting different sectors of societies under the banner of plurinationality. Hence, the full name Movement of Plurinational Unity Pachakutik. Ever since its establishment in 1986, CONAIE has shown a great capacity for calling for national protests, and the indigenous movement has indeed achieved many of its demands through social mobilization. Through history, indigenous people have been marginalized and discriminated. Long after official decolonization, they have been confronted with plenty of obstacles to participate in politics and society at large, such as the exclusion of illiterates (most indigenous citizens at the time) from voting in elections until 1979, or political figures calling indigenous people to stay in the “páramo”, villages in the mountains inhabited by indigenous communities.
In the current political context, Pachakutik offers a third way between the political right, which has hardly reformed and still very much represents Ecuador’s old politico-economic elites, and the Correísta movement, which represents a socially inclusive, state-centered development model, critical of neoliberalism and the “traditional” political class. The indigenous movement, by contrast, combines demands for indigenous rights, claims for progressive social and political reforms and an environmental agenda. Pachakutik’s political agenda lines up with the indigenous principle of Sumak Kawsay, or living well, and aims to care for all forms of life, giving special attention to sustainable economic development. The strengthening of society through open dialogue between communities, academia and all relevant social groups is a declared priority. The way in which Pachakutik aims to conduct politics is seen as utopian and unreal for many, but it draws on established practices that characterize the self-organization of indigenous communities: inclusive assemblies (cabildos) make decisions, while the leaders, who rotate in this capacity, follow their demands.
Before becoming Pachakutik’s presidential candidate, between 2013 and 2019, Yaku Pérez was president of ECUARUNARI, the regional indigenous confederation of Ecuador’s Andean region, and in 2019 he was elected as prefect of the Highland province of Azuay. Before, Pérez Guartambel was also councilor of the city of Cuenca and university professor. He is known for his activism, especially for his fight for the defense of water and against resource extraction (large-scale mining, in particular). This brought him – and the indigenous movement at large – in direct confrontation with the Correa government. During his presidency, Correa presided over a period of booming oil prices, which he used to significantly increase public investment, improve public infrastructure and expand social programs. In intensifying resource extraction (oil and mining), however, Correa had little respect for indigenous rights and environmental concerns. His government was also characterized by a series of corruption scandals and authoritarian policies which included the political persecution of opposition leaders, the confrontation and regulation of the media, and the interference with the judiciary and the legislature.
Against this background, Pachakutik as a political party was put in a difficult position when Arauz and Lasso made it to the runoff. Support for either candidate would have meant betraying parts of what the indigenous movements stands for. To endorse the right-wing politician and representative of the business elite Lasso was difficult, given Pachakutik’s progressive, popular and anti-neoliberal positions. Furthermore, Lasso was seen as traitor as he had backed down from an agreement to recount the presidential polls from the first round. Supporting Arauz, on the other hand, was incompatible with the indigenous movement’s strong criticism of the criminalization of indigenous protests, the support of extractivism and the disregard of collective indigenous rights under the Correa government. In the end, as mentioned, Pachakutik and CONAIE opted for calling for a null vote.
In parliament, Pachakutik has built an alliance with Izquierda Democrática, whose political positions are relatively close on key issues. While this alliance holds far from a majority in parliament, it has further increased the parliamentary strength of the indigenous party. This could be seen during the election of the president of the new parliament. After Lasso had backed down from an initial agreement with the Correístas, three candidates couldn’t get the 70 votes needed – and the election had to be postponed to the next day. In the end, the support of Lasso’s party CREO enabled the election of Pachakutik’s Gualadupe Llori as president of the National Assembly. This is the first time that an indigenous leader heads the national parliament. It is, however, not to say that CREO and Pachakutik have built a parliamentary alliance or that Pachakutik now forms part of a governing coalition. As representative of both parties have emphasized, agreements will be made depending on the respective issue. Still, the election of Llori shows the weakness of the alliance between Lasso’s political movement and the traditional right-wing party PSC, and it demonstrates that Lasso is keen to not be seen as supporting Correísmo. In sum, this means that Pachakutik – in alliance with Izquierda Democrática – will likely play an important role when it comes to parliamentary debates and decision-making.
Conflict between Lasso’s administration and Pachakutik rising?
Before being sworn in as president, Lasso announced that he is planning to duplicate oil production; promote mining; put oil refineries, roads, and the state phone company under concession; offer state-owned areas to the private sector, and selling a state-owned bank. The indigenous movement generally oppose such policies. CONAIE, the most important indigenous organization, already called on Pachakutik’s representatives in parliament to respect the demands of the indigenous nationalities and peoples as well as of the popular social sectors and to make sure that their decisions are in line with the project of building a plurinational state and with the interests of the Ecuadorean people. Salvador Quishpe, assembly member of Pachakutik, responded to Lasso’s announcement by suggesting that the new president’s “drastic” policies would lead to the united resistance from a broad alliance of social organizations. This statement is a clear reference to the mass protests of October 2019, which were spearheaded by the indigenous movement as well, and forced the then-government of Lenín Moreno to back down from austerity measures that included the cancellation of fuel subsidies.
President Lasso will certainly have a difficult time governing a country that is still deeply divided about the legacy of the Correa government and that mostly rejects the kind of conservative and pro-business policies he represents. It remains to be seen whether political forces will be able to move past current cleavages in order to strike alliances that respond to the needs of the Ecuadorian people which has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. As seen, the alliance between Lasso’s CREO and the indigenous party, which enabled the election of Llori as president of parliament and the establishing of assembly committees, is highly unlikely to last long. But in one way or another, Pachakutik will play a crucial role between the right-wing parties on the one hand and the Correístas on the other. The coming years will tell whether and how this third force will be able to develop its agenda and move in a complex political arena that requires the fostering of deals across deep-seated cleavages.