Ecuador weighs two very different economic visions during elections | News on the coronavirus pandemic

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Quito, Ecuador – Tanks and barbed wire surround the National Electoral Council as Ecuador prepares to choose a new president after a contested first round of voting and growing tensions between the two candidates ahead of Sunday’s second round of elections.
Nearby streets are open, but almost deserted after the government imposed a ‘state of emergency’ that restricts traffic based on license plate numbers and includes a nighttime curfew, both designed to curb the spread of COVID-19.

At the center of the election: the future of the Ecuadorian economy. Recent polls show a close race between Andres Arauz, a left-wing economist who plans to increase the social safety net, and Guillermo Lasso, a ring banker who would steer Ecuador towards a freer market economy.

After an economic crisis that led Ecuador to dollarize its economy in 2000, the country experienced a prolonged boom, led in part by a rise in the price of oil, which is the Andean nation’s main export.

According to the World Bank, Ecuador’s gross domestic product fell from $ 18.3 billion in 2000 to $ 101.7 billion in 2014 before stabilizing and declining now. The double shock of falling oil prices and COVID-19, however, has led to “a significant economic slowdown and increased poverty, despite government efforts,” according to the World Bank.

Amid growing partisanship, rumors about the two presidential candidates spread like wildfire on social media. Lasso supporters claim that Arauz wants to move the country forward towards socialism like neighboring Venezuela and get rid of the US dollar.

Supporters of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Andres Arauz rally outside the presidential palace in the final week of the campaign [John Dennehy/Al Jazeera]

They claim Arauz wants to create a new national currency, which evokes memories of the hyperinflation that ruined the economy and led to dollarization two decades ago.

Arauz denies this claim, writing in his campaign materials that he wants to bolster dollarization and the Ecuadorian economy in the process.

The current Congress, however, is taking the idea seriously enough to attempt to create legislation to prevent the next president from changing the currency.

Arauz supporters retort there is a smear campaign against their candidate and allege Lasso is paying Venezuelan refugees to stand in traffic with signs warning motorists to avoid the plight of their country and think about it before voting for Arauz.

The allegations and counterclaims led to increased tensions ahead of Sunday’s final vote.

The former president occupies an important place

For many voters, however, this is not about Lasso or Arauz.

“I never liked Lasso, but I will vote for him because I don’t want Correa to come back,” Andrea Villarreal, 31, told Al Jazeera. “He’s not for people, he’s just a gifted speaker who has fooled a lot of people. “

Fernando Cortez, supporter of Arauz, stands next to the scales where people pay to weigh themselves as he shares his political views [John Dennehy/Al Jazeera]

Rafael Correa was president from 2007 to 2017 and remains a divisive figure in the country. Correa fled to Belgium after being convicted of corruption and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Arauz is the chosen successor of the exiled leader. Many murals painted in the capital in support of Arauz display Correa’s familiar profile next to her name, but do not have the name or face of the actual candidate.

“It’s a new country since Correa was president. A better country, ”Fernando Cortez, 65, told Al Jazeera. He was wearing a T-shirt with Correa’s face and holding a flag promoting Arauz on one side and a poster with Arauz dressed as Superman on the other.

For 15 cents, passers-by could stop and weigh themselves on a scale he placed in downtown Quito, and he made sure his customers knew who he was voting for by checking their weight.

“We need a government that is for everyone, not just for the rich,” he told a mother as her son stood on the scales. “After Arauz’s victory, Correa will come back and he can be president again.”

Vote in the event of a pandemic

COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled since the start of the year, according to the Ministry of Health.

Vaccine rollout has been slow, with barely one percent of the population receiving their first dose. Three ministers of health have already resigned since the end of February, including two after scandals involving well-connected people receiving their doses in turn.

The country has registered more than 339,000 confirmed cases and more than 12,000 confirmed deaths (as well as nearly 5,000 probable deaths) to date, according to the Department of Health. Testing can be expensive, however, and Ecuador lags behind countries in South America.

After a surge in COVID-19 cases, particularly in Quito, the government of outgoing President Lenin Moreno declared a “state of emergency” in nine provinces, including Pichincha and Guayas and the two most populous cities, Quito and Guayaquil .

The headquarters of the Ecuadorian National Electoral Council are surrounded by tanks and barbed wire ahead of Sunday’s second round of elections. [John Dennehy/Al Jazeera]

The order went into effect on April 2 and is expected to last 30 days. In addition to the imposition of a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., the decree restricts the sale of alcohol, closes beaches and parks, makes telework compulsory as far as possible, limits travel between provinces and banned large gatherings.

The decree specifies that none of these restrictions are intended to limit “political participation or the electoral process”. Nonetheless, both sides see the decree as an early warning sign that Sunday’s vote may not be fair.

In previous elections, closing days were full of campaign events to influence late voters, and current travel restrictions may make it more difficult for some to reach their polling stations.

Containing the pandemic is also vital to reviving Ecuador’s struggling economy. According to data from the International Monetary Fund, Ecuador’s economy contracted 7.5% last year.

It’s a reality that 30-year-old Aida Cango, who runs a hotel and restaurant in the historic center of Quito, has witnessed firsthand.

“Our business has been extremely low since we were allowed to reopen in October,” Cango told Al Jazeera. “We used to have 25 to 30 guests a day, and now we only have about six a month.”

The adjoining restaurant was also popular with Ecuadorians, she said, but this activity is now almost non-existent.

“We’re losing money every day and I don’t know how long we’ll be able to stay open,” Cango added.

Indigenous boycott

Whichever candidate wins on Sunday will be responsible for getting Ecuadorians back to work and getting the economy back on track, two tough challenges. The new president will also inherit a deeply divided country.

Lasso, who finished second in the 2013 and 2017 elections, might have had a better chance if he had had the support of the powerful indigenous movement, whose chosen candidate finished closely in the third round in the first ballot, which took place on February 7th.

In this first ballot, Arauz obtained 32.72%, Lasso 19.74% and Yaku Perez, the candidate of the indigenous party, 19.39%, or 32,115 votes less than Lasso.

Alleging fraud and upset that there was no recount, Perez openly pondered a call for a general strike. Perez also called on his supporters to void their ballots by marking multiple candidates or damaging them in protest, with voting being compulsory in Ecuador.

Cango, who is indigenous, plans to do just that.

«Yaku [Perez] was deceived. Now we have two bad choices, and I refuse to support either one, ”she said. “Both will destroy the environment.”

The remaining candidates want to boost the economy through mining, although there is strong opposition, especially from the indigenous population and Perez.

The indigenous movement fractured in the closing days of the election, with a small number publicly separating from the party to support one of the two remaining presidential candidates.

The polls will close at 5 p.m. Sunday (10 p.m. GMT), with results due that evening. The new president will take power on May 24.

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