How Democracy Has Failed Ecuador

Surely, democracy is a good thing. Humans tend to believe that if the masses make a decision, then it must be the right one — it must be a decision that improves society. However, we are often wrong.

John Stuart Mill is recognized as one of the main philosophical promoters of democracy. However, in “Considerations On Republican Government,” he reminds us that democracy can be very dangerous when the majority of the population makes poor decisions. He terms this problem the “tyranny of the majority,” a situation in which democracy allows populism, demagoguery and mass ignorance to flourish.

Centuries after Mill’s time, problems associated with his diagnosis persist in democracy. Ecuador’s current political climate vividly mirrors them. Ecuadorians democratically elected President Rafael Correa in 2006. Recently, the Ecuadorian National Assembly, the majority of which is held by faithful members of Correa’s political party, Patria Altiva y Soberana, translated to Proud and Sovereign Fatherland, passed a series of constitutional amendments that further centralize power in the government’s hands. Among other things, the amendments legalize indefinite re-election for all political positions. Additionally, they allow the government to use the army in situations where integral security of the state requires support — with no indication as to who defines the matter of integral security. More importantly, the assembly did this after blatantly ignoring the population’s demands that the amendments be ratified through a popular referendum. Protesters took to the streets, violence erupted and the already fragile democratic political framework of the state was further weakened — if not proven nonexistent altogether.

Ecuador is a case of a democracy’s ironic self-destruction. This is how the process goes: Ecuador’s 2006 elections created what was perceived to be a democracy. Next, along comes the tyranny of the majority: since the candidate with the most votes will win, candidates appealed to the masses with populist programs and promises to marginalized indigenous peoples to gain the support of the majority. For example, transfer payments were made to the poor, who, in Ecuador, like most of the developing world, are the majority. Thus, preventing the election of a president who will best allow every member in society to individually flourish, they chose the president who benefited their interests for as long as it took him to get elected. Thus, Correa, a self-proclaimed socialist of the 21st century, wins the election.

Nine years later, the country became undemocratic as a direct result of the people’s decision to put Correa in power. The democratically elected president is now held accountable only to himself, and democracy in Ecuador is severely threatened, if not destroyed.

Democracy is not a bad thing. But democracy can be self-destructive when the populace is tricked into hijacking the system for its personal interests, which ultimately conflict with those of the population as a whole. This situation is not unique to Ecuador. We can look at Putin in Russia or Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela, and argue the same thing — that a country’s initially democratic decision can eventually destroy its democracy when policies, initially understood as the representation of people’s interests, instill an autocratic or dictatorial regime.
The failure to understand the virtue of democracy has led many developing countries to fail as liberal democracies. Since populist leaders like Correa constantly change and revise the existing democratic institutions for their own benefit, they cannot focus on strengthening democratic institutions that maintain their sovereignty regardless of presidential action.

It seems as though the developing world understands this idea. However, even the most robust democracies have demagogue-like candidates such as Donald Trump who clearly don’t offer a long-term sustainable form of democracy. If you truly believe that democracy can lead to beneficial outcomes, then make sure that next time you vote, you are not voting for populism. Make sure you are voting for the perpetuation of existing democratic institutions that will allow your interests to be represented at all times. And if those do not exist in your country, then think twice before you call it a democracy.

 

David Alzate Proaño is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.

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6 Comments

  1. Pingback: How Democracy Has Failed Ecuador - The Hoya - The Amazon Post

  2. Jason Faulkner says:

    “More importantly, the assembly did this after blatantly ignoring the population’s demands that the amendments be ratified through a popular referendum.”

    The “population” never demanded a referendum. That was just a talking point repeated over and over by failed politicians who couldn’t pull 20% of the vote in any election. The loudest among them, Salvador Quishpe, received a whopping 3% when he ran for president. The central organizer, Guillermo Lasso, has been running for president for the past 16 years and receives 20-25% every time. The author appears to be suggesting that democracy has failed if the people who are repeatedly rejected by the overwhelming majority are allowed to govern.

    Any Ecuadorian citizen can call for a national referendum. All they have to do is collect the signatures of 5% of the electorate (voting is compulsory here and voter turnout is consistently around 98%) and anything can be put up for a vote. It’s a mechanism that has been used many times in Ecuador from the local to the national level.

    The opposition never tried to call a referendum. They just kept repeating a completely bogus statistic that 82% of the population wanted a referendum. Instead of using the existing legal mechanism for calling a referendum, they called for a “national strike” to “shut the country down” and force the government to listen to their demands. The strike never materialized so instead they vandalized a UNESCO World Heritage Site, kidnapped and tortured police officers as well as a local politician, and temporarily blocked a couple highways (including an ambulance that was carrying a critically ill patient from a small rural town to the nearest operating room). They didn’t try to collect signatures because the last thing they want is an actual vote that demonstrates how little support they really have.

    But we can test this hypothesis. The amendments do not go into effect until 2017, several months after the next election. No currently sitting elected official will be eligible to run for reelection in the next election. That goes for every legislator, the speaker of the house and Correa. They all have to sit out the next election cycle and run again in 2020 if they want to reenter politics. The entire slate is going to be wiped clean, so there is every opportunity for a candidate to run on the platform of nullifying the amendments. There is also still plenty of time for social organizations to call for a referendum if there really is popular support. The legal mechanisms have been in place this whole time if the population is truly demanding a referendum as the author claims.

    I can tell you right now that you won’t see Guillermo Lasso, Salvador Quishpe, Carlos Perez, Andres Paez, Jaime Nebot or any of the other people who claim to speak for the population (even bother to go down to the Electoral Commission and pick up an application for a referendum, let alone organize a signature drive. I can also tell you that none of them will win an election next year. The author’s assertion that “democracy in Ecuador is severely threatened, if not destroyed” is absurd hyperbole. The reality is Ecuador is living through a social and political renaissance. Every social and economic indicator has improved at an unprecedented rate. The implies that the majority are not smart enough to know what is in their best interest, that they have given their vote away for a sandwich and a $50 a month welfare payment. To write off the tremendous achievements of the last decade as mere populism is an insult to the intelligence of the overwhelming majority of Ecuadorians who have supported this political project for the past decade. It also shows how far the author is willing to go to rationalize away 10 years of objective data showing how well this government has performed.

  3. David Alzate says:

    First of all, I want to emphasize that this piece is only my own personal opinion. I don’t believe there is any type of criterion that we can use to conclusively decide whether or not a society is democratic in every single aspect of the word.

    My point is that democracy is more than just obtaining support from a simple electoral majority. Democracy is about representation, yes, but it’s also about liberal values, feeling that your voice is always represented at the highest level, and the institutionalization of the mechanisms that guarantee such components.

    In regards to Ecuador’s situation, I absolutely agree with you in regards to the little support, cohesion, and pragmatism that the political opposition has. It’s a shame to see a civil society without a well-organized alternative to the ruling regime, since a single administration cannot possibly fully represent all individuals’ interests and ideals.

    But we should be weary when we talk about high “objective” economic growth levels as an indicator for success and democracy. Of course GDP will rise when government spending rises. But what can you tell me about the government’s ongoing fiscal deficit? Our external debt to China? Are $50 transfer payments a policy that will obtain sustainable, long-term economic growth for low-income households?

    Margaret Thatcher’s words come to mind here: “The problem with socialism is, you always end up running out of other people’s money”. Where is foreign investment in Ecuador? Where are the incentives for the private sector (which is still the main creator of jobs in the economy)? Why have we seen growing numbers of corruption scandals in the public sector? And let’s step outside of the economic for one moment: Why have so many journalists’ jobs been threatened, and why is a political “war” against the free press necessary? (Did Correa really need the $40 million that he demanded within the El Universo lawsuit?)

    Again, only my opinion here, but it does not only seem rational, yet also ethically correct, to implement a socioeconomic program that seeks long-term stability and development over short-term support and spending. It only takes a trip to one of the government’s new public hospitals to see how inefficient these new “revolutionary” welfare programs really are. I understand progress comes little by little, but I would actually prefer for Ecuador to get there – not get stuck in the middle.

    To respond to your first point- the population did demand a referendum. There were people in the streets, being violently stopped by the policy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqJz88HFuJ0). Has the protestors’ behavior been stellar? Absolutely not. It’s depressing in it’s own ways. But let’s not forget how the government and the police forces have responded.

    Even if 5% of the signatures necessary for a referendum weren’t obtained (a sad thing indeed), it still blows my mind that such a crucial amendments package wasn’t automatically voted upon by the people. If Correa continues to be as popular as you claim, why wouldn’t he want to legitimize this action by making people vote in favor of it?

    I don’t think the “overwhelming majority of Ecuadorians who have supported this political project for the past decade” are not intelligent. But electorates make mistakes. People supported Chavez for years, and where is Venezuela now? What about Trump’s approval ratings?

    Again, this is only my opinion – and I am only someone who wants to see their country grow and improve in any way possible. I just don’t believe that this particular political regime is the way to achieve that, and I think that Ecuador’s situation could exemplify some of the imperfections of a democratic system that need to be addressed. If the Revolucion Ciudadana is economically and socially successful in 10 years’ time, and every individual in Ecuador feels like his/her freedoms are perfectly safeguarded, then I’ll fortunately be proved wrong.

    To close, I’d like to include this quote by Simón Bolivar:

    “The continuation of authority has frequently proved the undoing of democratic governments. Repeated elections are essential to the system of popular governments, because there is nothing so dangerous as to suffer power to be vested for a long time in one citizen. The people become accustomed to obeying him, and he becomes accustomed to commanding, hence the origin of usurpation and tyranny.”

    David Alzate

    • Jason Faulkner says:

      “But what can you tell me about the government’s ongoing fiscal deficit? Our external debt to China? Are $50 transfer payments a policy that will obtain sustainable, long-term economic growth for low-income households?”

      All countries run fiscal deficits during economic downturns. Most countries borrow from China because they have the money. Were we doing better when we were borrowing from the US? Debt to GDP is HALF what it was when Correa was first elected, about 30%. Compare that to the US’s 120%. Compare that to Colombia’s 65%. You’d be hard pressed to find any country in the Americas with a lower debt burden.

      The $50 payments were never intended to cause sustainable, long-term economic growth for low-income households. It’s a safety net for the poorest among us and contrary to what you stated in your original post, the “majority” of Ecuadorians are not poor and do not receive it. In fact, over half the people who received the bono 8 years ago are now off it. That’s because they’ve been lifted out of poverty.

      “Margaret Thatcher’s words come to mind here: “The problem with socialism is, you always end up running out of other people’s money”. ”

      Margaret Thatcher said a lot of silly things to distract from her abysmal tenure. Slogans don’t change reality and the reality is the overwhelming majority of the most prosperous countries in the world are run on socialist models. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but you aren’t entitled to your own facts.

      “Where is foreign investment in Ecuador? Where are the incentives for the private sector (which is still the main creator of jobs in the economy)?”

      Maybe you haven’t gotten around the country lately. When was the last time Ecuador has had this much non-oil-based foreign investment? Private sector growth has far outpaced public sector growth over the last decade. Again, there are objective indicators.

      “Why have we seen growing numbers of corruption scandals in the public sector?”

      Growing compared to what?

      “Why have so many journalists’ jobs been threatened, and why is a political “war” against the free press necessary?”

      Who is threatening reporters’ jobs? And since when is private sector synonymous with “free”? Ask all the reporters who were fired for not doing their bosses bidding.

      “To respond to your first point- the population did demand a referendum. There were people in the streets, being violently stopped by the policy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqJz88HFuJ0). Has the protestors’ behavior been stellar? Absolutely not. It’s depressing in it’s own ways. But let’s not forget how the government and the police forces have responded.”

      The protests were tiny, though you’d never know that by reading the English language press. You don’t demand a referendum by attacking police, vandalizing buildings and blocking highways. Over a hundred police were injured. In what country can you injure over a hundred police, kidnap two of them, and get away with it. Frankly, I thought the police response was far too restrained. Where are the hoards of injured protesters? Where is the army in the streets? The police basically stood there and let these criminals attack them with impunity. They even killed a horse. Try that kind of behavior in the US or Europe and see what happens.

      There is an existing accessible legal mechanism for calling for a referendum. Just because a few hundred drunks (and yes, I was there, most of them were quite drunk) hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails at police doesn’t mean we should suspend the Constitution and bend to their demands. What kind of country would we be if anyone with a violent mob could hold the legislative process hostage? And like I said, there’s still a year before the amendments go into effect and yet nobody has even tried to start collecting signatures.

      “Even if 5% of the signatures necessary for a referendum weren’t obtained (a sad thing indeed), it still blows my mind that such a crucial amendments package wasn’t automatically voted upon by the people.”

      Not only were they not obtained, nobody even tried to collect them. What does that tell you? It tells me Lasso knew he didn’t have the support so they figured they’d go back to the old days where a few turbas have veto power over the majority. By your reasoning, anything that the legislature passes is “crucial” to someone so everything should be put up for a referendum. How did that work out in ancient Greece?

      “People supported Chavez for years, and where is Venezuela now?”

      Where was Venezuela in the 80s and 90s?

      “What about Trump’s approval ratings?”

      Among Republican primary voters? Who cares? He’s completely unelectable.

      “If the Revolucion Ciudadana is economically and socially successful in 10 years’ time, and every individual in Ecuador feels like his/her freedoms are perfectly safeguarded, then I’ll fortunately be proved wrong.”

      That’s an unrealistic goal. There isn’t a country on Earth where every individual feels their freedoms are perfectly safeguarded. However, it has been 10 years already and the country is more economically and socially successful than at any time in its history. With the investments made in education and infrastructure over the past decade, investments that could have been made by previous governments but weren’t, there’s no reason to believe that the country will not continue on this trajectory.

      BTW, we do have repeated elections every 4 years. It’s not Correa or AP’s fault that the only people who run against him are corrupt bankers and military officers who drove the country into the ground. The reality is this project is working well and Ecuadorians affirm that time and again at the polls. If you want a referendum, organize one. If you have a better political plan, present it to the electorate and see what they say. That’s called democracy.

  4. A lot of fuss being made about removing Presidential term limits in Ecuador. Take a look at the list of democracies that have no term limit for their head of state (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_term_limits). It includes: Australia, UK, most of Europe, Japan, Canada and many more.

  5. Jason Faulkner says:

    Nick, for some reason your comment isn’t appearing here even though I could read it in the email notification.

    The Yasunidos referendum was a complete and utter fraud. It was clear something was afoot from the very beginning. First the Yasunidos team refused to show up to the training sessions given by the CNE to group organizing a signature drive. Then they printed their signature collection forms on paper too big to fit in the scanners. When they were informed they had done so and would need to use the correct sized forms, they printed another bath . . . on the same size paper. Once the signatures had allegedly been collected and submitted, they tried to keep block the vehicles that were transporting the forms across the street to the CNE auditorium where they would be scanned in front of observers and any interested public.

    Once the public viewing of the verification process was underway (which was shown live on television; I was watching), it became clear why they pulled all these shenanigans. The government had to buy a slew of new scanners because the forms submitted by Yasunidos wouldn’t fit in the existing machines. That cost the taxpayers over a million dollars. It was clear that was their real play, to try and bypass the verification process, but the government called their bluff. The CNE didn’t reject the bid because of unconfirmed signatures as you say. There were hundreds of thousands of fake or missing cedula numbers in addition to over a hundred thousand signatures from such illustrious Ecuadorians as Barney the Dinosaur, Bruce Wayne (and of course Batman) and other fictional characters. Entire sheets had been signed by the same person. Yasunidos’ own director signed 12 times. When asked by the press why she had signed 12 times live on television during the verification process in the CNE auditorium, she claimed “she forgot”. Once all the fake signatures and missing or fake cedula numbers were rejected from the count, they barely had collected 300k signatures, less than half the necessary number. The entire fraudulent process cost the Ecuadorian taxpayer millions of dollars. I’m still waiting for someone to be prosecuted.

    As for referendums that have been approved during Correa’s term, the 2007 Consulta Popular to form a Constituent Assembly was the first. It passed with 71% approval. The 2011 Consulta Popular which consisted of 10 questions passed with 77% approval. There have been dozens of Consulta Populares at the municipal level including the one to ban bullfighting in Quito and there have been about half a dozen at the provincial level including the most recent in La Manga del Cura to decide which province they would belong to.

    Yasunidos is a pathetic attempt at the Gene Sharp method of the soft coup. I remember one night watching them crashing themselves into police shields outside the CNE so that they could post pictures of police brutality. Then when the “protest” ended promptly at 6, they walked into a shawarma shop I was eating at and were eating right alongside the same police still in riot gear, laughing and giggling on all sides. It’s always a show for Yasunidos.

    Do you remember that big bus crash about a year ago that killed over a dozen people? Turns out the driver was unlicensed and fled the scene. In response, the National Assembly demanded that all the unlicensed commercial drivers be rooted out so the national police set up road blocks all over the country. Yasunidos showed up in a bus they brought down from Arizona (yet they protest oil drilling) via Colombia a couple weeks later. They entered with three passengers and received and RV permit to continue through the country to Peru. They, and their NGO media lackeys like Amazon Watch, started posting news stories all over the internet and Twitter that they were being followed around and harassed by the police when in fact they were getting stopped in the same roadblocks every other bus was stopped at. They started accumulating passengers as they went until eventually they had over a dozen people on board, too many under the law to be driving with a foreign sportsman (RV) license. When stopped at another roadblock, they were told they couldn’t continue to travel in that bus on that license. They all got off the bus and got down on their knees with their hands up against the vehicle as if they were being arrested. Of course they made sure to get a good photo to flood social media (and that picture was carried again by Amazon Watch next to a claim that they were being arrested). The police offered to give them a ride to the next town because the bus was going to be impounded until they could provide a driver with a proper license to drive a passenger bus. While in the back of the police truck, they clasped their wrists together and raised them in the air as if they had been handcuffed. Again, the photo went around the world with a claim that they had been arrested when in fact they were being given a ride to the bus station. Nobody bothered to ask how these photos were being taken if they had all been arrested.

    Yasunidos has proven time and again that they are a fraud. Had the government just gone along and approved their referendum, they would have lost by at least 30 points according to all the polling at the time. I suppose that’s when they would have started crying fraud. The reality is it costs over $70 million to have a national referendum, about the cost of a dozen Millennial schools, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to support one without the signatures necessary. There’s still a year before the reelection amendment goes into effect and not a single one of the people opposing it has even registered at the CNE for a referendum, yet they all claim they have support of “82%” of the population. Seriously, that’s the number they’re all going with even though nobody can find the poll they all claim exists. Whining and attacking police isn’t sufficient. Guillermo Lasso certainly has more than enough money to organize a signature drive. He could hire an army of signature collectors and have it done in less than a month, yet his only response when asked why he hasn’t registered with the CNE is that Correa should just call for one. There’s no mechanism in the law for Correa to just call for a referendum. Just like any other citizen, if Correa wants a referendum he has to collect the signatures. It’s a completely facetious talking point that sells well in the English-language press but nobody here is buying it anymore.

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