Ecuador’s Permanent Mob-Rule Campaign
By demonizing opponents and changing voting law, President Rafael Correa assures his re-election.
Barack Obama uses his high office to conduct a permanent campaign against his opponents, often falsely attributing the basest of motives to them. That’s pretty much the style of Latin American demagogues as well. Fortunately it works less well in the United States than south of the border.
The difference is that the American in the Oval Office is constrained by limits to his power under the U.S. Constitution. Even if 24/7 campaigning makes him popular, two other branches of government can check him and the minority opposition retains its rights.
Not so in, say, Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa is a candidate for re-election on Feb. 17. Mr. Correa is a permanent campaigner and has been so since his first presidential victory in November 2006. He has spent the past six years demonizing the opposition rather than looking for common ground as a leader might be expected to do. He also has used permanent campaigning to rewrite the constitution and eliminate barriers to his absolute power.
Mr. Correa is likely to win re-election easily, and his supporters will claim that he did so democratically. Yet opening polling stations once every four years does not make a free society—and no serious person today mistakes Ecuador for a modern, liberal republic.
The permanent campaign as a governing strategy is nothing new. Catherine Conaghan, from Queen’s University in Ontario, and Carlos de la Torre, a professor at the left-wing FLACSO University in Quito, cite precedents in a July 2008 paper published in the International Journal of Press/Politics. They note that it was Jimmy Carter’s pollster Patrick Caddell who first “coined” the term, that it “became virtually synonymous with the communications strategies of the Clinton presidency.” It was also used to analyze George W. Bush’s White House.
Yet, as the authors observe, when leaders in developing countries employ permanent campaigning, the outcome is often very different than it is in “mature democracies.” Indeed, in some Andean countries, it has produced, in the words of Ms. Conaghan and Mr. de la Torre, the “extreme plebiscitary presidency.” This is a polite way of referring to mob rule. Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales are two examples. Mr. Correa is a third.
Mr. Correa’s inauguration in 2007 came on the heels of three Ecuadorean presidencies from 1997-2005 that were never completed. Taking over from an interim president, and lacking even a plurality backing in Congress, he ran the high risk that his term might be cut short too.
Mr. Correa wanted a new constitution as part of a wider strategy to remake Ecuador in the image and likeness of Chávez’s Venezuela. But under the 1998 constitution, only the legislature had the authority to call for a referendum on whether to rewrite the highest law in the land. Holding the referendum against the wishes of Ecuador’s Congress was only his first problem. He also needed to win a “yes” vote and to win control of the constituent assembly.
“The pressing need to keep the public firmly aligned with the president and to win two successive electoral victories necessitated a permanent campaign,” Ms. Conaghan and Mr. de la Torre wrote. “The ‘war-room’ of the 2006 election campaign was recreated in the presidential palace.”
When Congress pushed back against the anti-constitutional referendum, Mr. Correa pointed to his popular support and complained that Congress was standing in the way of what the nation wanted. He had 57 of the 100-member unicameral Congress expelled from office, while his supporters took to the streets with violence to intimidate his opponents.
Other aspects of Mr. Correa’s permanent campaign are equally troubling. As Ms. Conaghan and Mr. de la Torre noted in 2008, he regularly denounced his opponents as criminals while he positioned his supporters as “morally superior common folk.” He thus “dismissed and ignored all attempts to constrain the actions of the executive branch, whether they emanated from institutions such as the congress or from actors in the party system or civil society.”
When opinion makers, many of whom had favored his candidacy, questioned his power grab, he unleashed vitriol. In a classic Correa outburst, one well-known commentator was branded as a “big fake, a swine, a professional defamer, and a bank employee.”
The permanent campaign worked. Mr. Correa got his new constitution, including an article that stipulates that votes cast as “blank” in the presidential election, where voting is mandatory, aren’t counted toward the total. With these protest votes thrown out, the task of winning 50% plus one next week to avoid a runoff is made easier.
“The logic of the plebiscitary presidency is to eschew checks and balances,” Ms. Conaghan and Mr. de la Torre observed, and Mr. Correa sought it “for the express purpose of ridding himself of the possible constraints on his power that competing institutions could pose.”
That done, the Feb. 17 “election” is but a formality. The moral of the story is that the permanent campaign carries with it obvious dangers, no matter what country it is employed in.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com