On Sunday, Ecuadorians elected Daniel Noboa to the presidency. The businessman and son of former presidential candidate Álvaro Noboa defeated his left-wing rival Luisa González, the candidate of exiled former President Rafael Correa’s party, by a four-point margin. Ecuador’s 2023 presidential election made global headlines this year when, just days before the first-round vote in August, the anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio was assassinated at a campaign event by Colombian hitmen hired by local and transnational organized crime.
A historically peaceful country, Ecuador has borne the brunt of a reconfiguration in the global drug trade. The country has seen homicides skyrocket to 26 per 100,000 people, in the same range as Brazil and Colombia, up from 7 per 100,000 in 2021. Amid a collapse in coca prices in neighboring Colombia, as well as surging demand for synthetic fentanyl in the United States, competition over trafficking routes has become increasingly violent in the Andean nation.
Beyond the advent of narco-terror in Ecuador, the 2023 elections were notable for other reasons. For one thing, the president-elect won’t serve a full four-year term. Instead, beginning in December, Daniel Noboa will govern for outgoing President Guillermo Lasso’s remaining 16 months in office. Historically, Ecuadorian leaders have often suffered premature demise at the hands of a hostile legislature and public. In the 11 years prior to the election of Rafael Correa, who remained in office for a decade after he was inaugurated in 2007, Ecuador saw seven presidents enter and exit the Palacio de Carondelet.
In response, the executive was granted what Ecuadorians call muerte cruzada (“crossed death”). In the event of a loss of confidence in the unicameral National Assembly, the president can call for snap elections to replace both himself and assembly members for the rest of his term. This was what happened in May, when the National Assembly was all but ready to remove Lasso from office due to a corruption scandal involving his administration’s links to the Albanian mafia. Ecuadorians have opted to replace one milquetoast center-right businessman (Lasso) with another (Noboa), but the close margin in the runoff speaks to the staying power of both Correísmo (the ideology of Correa, the former president) and Anticorreísmo (that of its opponents).
Noboa is the scion of a vast banana fortune; his opponent is a self-identified socialist and probable ally to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Turn to any South Florida media outlet in recent weeks, and you would hear of a divine struggle in Ecuador between capitalist virtue and the wicked forces of transnational socialism. But forget the Cold War clichés and take off the Miami-tinted shades, and a more surprising contrast emerges.
For one thing, Noboa’s victory is a triumph for progressive social causes. The Miami-born, Harvard educated president-elect is a business-friendly social progressive, as well as an anti-extraction environmentalist—a sort of youthful, tropical Mike Bloomberg. His platform stressed diversity and LGBT rights, and he campaigned against oil exploration in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, with the left-wing González on the opposite side of the issue. In August, Ecuador’s first-round vote was held in tandem with two environmental referenda: one authorizing drilling in Yasuní and the other mining in the interior Chocó Andino. Both items were rejected overwhelmingly by Ecuadorian voters. On an array of other issues, too, González ran to the right of her opponent. An evangelical and former member of Ecuador’s Social Christian Party, the left-wing standard-bearer voted against abortion even in cases of rape. Still, González’s loss should be chalked up less to her stances on these issues than to her close association with the polarizing Correa, who remains the nation’s most important political figure despite his extended exile in Belgium.
Correa’s legacy is mixed. A demagogue with authoritarian tendencies, he nonetheless oversaw a period of needed stability, economic boom, and redistributive spending, cutting poverty by almost 40 percent. In a country where more than half of government revenues stem from oil rents, these gains were largely the product of the 2000s commodities boom that later receded. Still, Correa is rightfully credited with lasting gains such as equipping Ecuador with first-rate infrastructure. An economist by training, the former president was instrumental in annulling a chunk of Ecuador’s pre-2007 debt—arguing convincingly that much of it was the product of predatory cronyism on part of domestic lenders. At the same time, Correa is despised by many Ecuadorians for a litany of despotic actions and corruption scandals, many of which came to light in years after he left office. These include politicizing the judiciary, taking bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, and allegedly ordering the kidnapping of a political opponent.
With a commodities bust in 2014, the country faced financial insolvency amid collapsing oil revenues. Eventually, Correa’s hand-picked successor, Lenín Moreno, chose to side with the opposition, requesting an International Monetary Fund loan and enacting a program of neoliberal austerity, as well as springing the justice department on his old mentor. Despite the unpopularity of his austerity policies, Moreno’s rebuke of Correa was enough to elect Lasso over the Correísta candidate, Andrés Arauz, in 2021. Sunday’s runoff was a replay of this previous election, with voters replacing an older Catholic businessman with a younger secular one. The fear now for Correa’s opponents is that Noboa will end up as unpopular as Lasso and Moreno, setting the stage for González to beat him in their likely 2025 rematch.
Noboa may also face a challenge from the right in the first round in 2025, especially if he fails to address growing concerns about crime. Back in August, he eked out a victory over the more radical right-wing candidate Jan Topic, a telecom executive-turned-volunteer fighter for Ukraine who promised a Bukele-style crackdown. For his part, Noboa has promised to improve public safety by investing in local communities, although in the days before the runoff, he also pledged to relocate convicted criminals to offshore penal colonies.
While González also campaigned on combatting crime through local investment, her moderate rhetoric failed to convince a majority of voters that she represents a break with the worst impulses of her mentor Correa. Should she manage to win in 2025, the biggest question is whether she will allow Correa to return to the country. Correísmo has suffered a setback, but sooner or later its adherents—and possibly the former president himself—are likely to return to power.