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  • Latin America’s Authoritarian Drift:Technocratic Populism in Ecuador
  • Carlos de la Torre (bio)

When Rafael Correa won his third presidential election with a commanding 57 percent of the vote on 17 February 2013, Ecuador went from being a country that seemingly could not keep a chief executive in office—there had been no fewer than seven of them during the decade before Correa’s first win in 2006—to being one with a stable president. Correa speaks of himself as leading a “citizens’ revolution” that aims to achieve “a radical and rapid change in the existing structures of Ecuadorean society, in order to change the bourgeois state into a truly popular one.”1 He is part of a trend that Kurt Weyland describes elsewhere in these pages as a move toward “soft authoritarianism that is taking hold in parts of Latin America.” Like the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Correa positions himself as a left-of-center politician with a special concern for the poor and marginalized, though his is a populism with a curiously elitist and technocratic bent.

Correa claims to reject the concept of parties, but his “movement,” the Proud and Sovereign Fatherland Alliance (Alianza PAIS or AP), won 52 percent of the overall vote in the National Assembly balloting that was held the same day. Thanks to creative electoral-system engineering, that slightly better than 50 percent showing was enough to give AP an overwhelming 100 of the Assembly’s 131 seats. Ecuador’s political future now rests firmly in the hands of Correa and his lieutenants, even as the regime of Correa’s most important preceptor in authoritarian leftist populism, Hugo Chávez, is facing grave uncertainties [End Page 33] and difficulties following Chávez’s death of cancer on 5 March 2013.

As I understand the term, “populism”—which may appear in leftist or rightist forms—is an approach to politics that depicts it as a struggle between “the people” and some malign elite or set of elites. Under populism, “the people” is imagined as a homogenous body sharing interests and an identity that are embodied in a leader whose mission is to save the nation. Populism includes previously excluded groups, while fostering majoritarian understandings of democracy that do not always respect the rights of the opposition or the institutional fabric of democracy. Classic Latin American populism, whose heyday ran from the 1940s to the 1970s, was inclusionary and antiliberal at the same time. Populists fought against vote fraud and expanded the franchise. Their rhetoric gave symbolic dignity to the poor, and their socioeconomic policies included the marginalized. Yet populists also selectively disregarded the norms and procedures of liberal democracy, intimidated the opposition, attacked the privately owned media, and coopted civil society organizations or built new ones from the top down.

When a new generation of populist outsiders began coming to power in the 1990s, typically amid crises that undermined political parties and democratic institutions, the relationships between populism and liberal democracy became even more troubled. As Correa would a short time later, Chávez and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori denounced parties, shut down or replaced national legislatures, packed institutions of control with supporters, attacked private media outlets, and harassed civil society groups with ties to traditional parties. Correa has modeled himself most closely upon his fellow left-wing populist Chávez. Both men convened constituent assemblies, wrote new constitutions, and used elections to push aside traditional elites and build new hegemonic blocs. Each left the act of voting intact and indeed relied on it for legitimacy, but once in office used the power and resources of the state to blatantly reshape the electoral playing field to his own advantage. As Weyland notes, each seized upon a crisis besetting political institutions in his country in order to begin moving toward a competitive authoritarian regime.

Although Correa shares with the late Venezuelan president an authoritarian bent that has led to the undermining of democracy’s institutional fabric, Correa differs from Chávez in significant ways. Chávez created an array of participatory institutions, mobilized supporters, and selectively nationalized private property. Correa combines populist rhetoric with...