Newcomer in Ecuador’s first-round election may be bad omen for leftist populist candidate | Opinion

At first glance, the leftist populist party of convicted former president Rafael Correa won Ecuador’s Aug. 20 elections and is likely to return to power. But don’t be fooled by the headlines: There are growing signs that a newcomer center-right businessman who came in second could win the Oct. 15 runoff vote.

Luisa Gonzalez, a surrogate for Correa, won the first place in the Aug. 20 election with 33.3% of the vote. Her party’s leader could not run, because he was sentenced to eight years in prison on corruption charges and has fled to Belgium.

But, contrary to many pre-election predictions, Gonzalez didn’t get the 40% she needed to avoid a runoff vote. She will now face 35-year-old businessman Daniel Noboa, who unexpectedly won the second place with 23.7% of the vote, in October.

Noboa is the son of Ecuador’s richest man, banana tycoon and five-time presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa, and has become the country’s new political star. The younger Noboa wasn’t among the six most popular presidential hopefuls a week before the elections, but he surprised everybody on election night.

His popularity had soared, undetected by pollsters, only a few days before the election, after his calm, non-confrontational performance at an Aug. 13 presidential debate.

Now, Noboa has the best chance to win in October. He can get the support of anti-Correa voters whose candidates lost in the first round, plus some moderate pro-Correa voters who don’t feel threatened by him.

“She will have a hard time winning the second round,” Santiago Basabe, a political science professor with the FLACSO social sciences university in Quito, told me, speaking of Gonzalez. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Noboa wins the runoff election by more than 10 percentage points.”

Noboa, who studied business at New York University and got masters’ degrees from the Kellogg School of Management in Illinois, Harvard and George Washington University, has benefited indirectly from a wave of violence that is rocking Ecuador.

The country’s murder rate has been rising over the past five years, and the recent killing of anti-corruption candidate Fernando Villavicencio hurt the Correa-backed party badly.

Villavicencio, a former journalist, had denounced Correa for massive corruption over the years and was his harshest critic in the race. Correa denounced the murder, but many of his critics speculated that the former president’s supporters were behind it.

Villavicencio remained on the ballots after his death and got 16.5% of the vote. The vast majority of his supporters are staunch anti-Correa voters who are likely to support Noboa in October, Basabe told me.

John Polga-Hecimovich, a professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, says Noboa also stands a good chance of winning because he is perceived as stronger on security issues than his rival.

“Ecuador’s political debate has been centered on security, and that helps Noboa,” Polga-Hecimovich told me. “He can go on the offensive in the weeks to come by pointing at Correa’s dubious legacy on crime and security.”

While Correa benefited from record world oil prices during his 2007-2017 time in office and used part of the revenue to expand subsidies to the poor, security experts blame him for much of Ecuador’s current drug and gang-related violence.

Correa reportedly struck a peace agreement with Ecuador’s drug gangs and expelled the U.S. anti-narcotics military base of Manta in 2009. But Correa’s worst mistake was to allow Colombian, Albanian and Slovenian drug mafias into the country under his “ciudadano universal” — universal citizenship — immigration policy, which invited foreigners to move to Ecuador with virtually no questions asked.

Correa’s candidate could still win in October, because she has a much better organized party than Noboa. The country’s biggest cities, Quito and Guayaquil, are run by Correa-backed mayors. And Correa’s leftist party will benefit from the memories of the oil boom’s economic bonanza of the 2000s.

But as long as Ecuador’s insecurity crisis continues be the top issue on voters’ minds — something that’s unlikely to change over the next two months — this has become Noboa’s election to lose.

After the disastrous performance of the populist-leftist Kirchnerista party in Argentina’s primary elections a week earlier, the Aug. 20 elections in Ecuador may turn out to be a crippling setback for Correa’s party. That’s something to celebrate for democracy supporters and corruption foes across the hemisphere.

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