Ecuador: "The government does not want the people to take decisions themselves"

Super-election Day. On February 19 Ecuadors 12 million eligible people voted for a new President and a new Parliament. And they also could decide on a plebiscite triggered by outgoing President Rafael Correa. Up for vote was the question of whether elected politicians or state officials should be allowed to have financial assets in tax havens. We interviewed Alberto Acosta, formerly a close friend of President Correa and Minister for Energy.

How much was the public informed about the popular vote? 

Very little. For a long time, you could hardly find any information on the website of the National Electoral Council. I heard about the vote for the first time on 1st February while being in a taxi. That was just a very brief radio ad, the plebiscite can hardly be noticed in public.

How do you explain this lack of information?

Well, reality got into play. Just imagine, there is a prosecutor in Ecuador who has his assets in a tax haven. And the prosecutor is a part of the President´s wider circle. So he does not necessarily want the public to know about this fact, and also he is not interested in moving back these assets. Again, we need to question what President Correa wanted to achieve with the plebiscite - it is a question that cannot properly be answered.

Lenin for president?

With Rafael Correa not eligible for re-election after two terms in office, Ecuadorians could on February 19 not yet agree on a new Head of State: most votes (approx 39%) were gained by Lenin Moreno, a leftist Correa follower, while a banker from the centre-right party, Guillermo Lasso, got second (with 29%). A decisive vote for the presidency will take place on April 2. For all results, including the Parliament elections and the Plebiscite please consult the website of the Election Management Body of Ecuador. The South American country does have several tools of modern direct democracy in it’s constitution, but only the top-down plebiscite is used in practice. 

Did President Correa made a mistake holding the popular vote?

Well, Correa realized too late that the people will vote about him as a person and his political achievements and not about the issue itself. A plebiscite always opens up this possibility. Now President Correa wants to avoid this decision.

The constitution of Ecuador provides two forms of direct democracy: First, the plebiscite (which are decisions triggered by politicians in power and, second, votes launched by citizens´ initiative. During the past 20 years there had been 25 plebiscites but citizens initiated only one law proposal. Why is there such a strong contrast?

The government does not really want the people to take decisions themselves. The current government of Ecuador got into power as a result of anti-neoliberal politics. Once in office, President Correa increased his power systematically. Now he does not want this power to be reduced.

The constitution of Ecuador provides that male and female candidates must take turns on political party lists in elections for parliament. Does this quota system work in practice?

This system works in principle. It led to a more balanced proportion of women and men in the Parliament. But when it comes to gender equality, the society of Ecuador still has a long way to go. For example, it is not yet possible to have a parliamentary debate about abortion after a woman was raped. The President is against such a debate.

You chaired the most recent constitutional assembly. The Constitution of Ecuador has an article on direct democracy. How did it come about? 

Overall, the new constitution of Ecuador developed in 2007-08 was a project of participatory democracy. The assembly held its sessions in Montecristi, a small town close to the coast of Ecuador. Usually, Montecristi  has about 20.000 inhabitants. However, 150.000 people gathered there to elaborate the constitution. These people demanded a strong right for citizen participation. Also previous constitutions provided participatory rights. However, for most people these rights had been too weak. They were hardly realised in practice. Also for this reason, the people of Ecuador made Correa´s predecessor resign from office.

Cora Pfafferott and Bruno Kaufmann talked to Alberto Acosta in Basel/Switzerland earlier this month, where the politician participated in the "Reclaim Democracy" conference. Cora Pfafferott is a contributing journalist and spokesperson for Democracy International, where a slightly different version of this piece also was published (also in German). Bruno Kaufmann is P2P´s editor.