Ecuador in a State of Emergency

Elections, Insecurity, and Assassination of a Presidential Candidate

Fernando Villavicencio (center) at an election rally shortly before he was shot to death earlier in the day.

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Uncredited

Ecuador has been deeply divided for several years now. Not even the liberal-conservative President Guillermo Lasso, elected in 2021, has been able to change this situation. On May 17th, Lasso dissolved the National Assembly, Ecuador's parliament, following a removal process, and resigned from his position. This unprecedented but constitutional move was intended to pave the way for new elections scheduled for August 20, 2023. However, the election campaign has now significantly heightened uncertainty in the country: the assassination of the presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, a journalist and former member of Ecuador's National Assembly, just 11 days before the presidential elections, has plunged the country into a deep crisis.

An Assassination that Shakes the Country

The assassination of Fernando Villavicencio, a presidential candidate known for his commitment to fighting corruption and organized crime, has deeply shaken Ecuador. On August 9, 2023, Villavicencio was brutally murdered during an electoral campaign rally in Quito. This tragic event left not only his political movement but the entire country shocked and saddened.

Villavicencio's assassination is attributed to the criminal group "Los Lobos". However, there are doubts about the credibility of this claim due to contradictory information from various sources. The context of rising crime and drug trafficking in Ecuador has created a climate that fosters violence and insecurity. The presence of several criminal gangs fighting for territory and resources has led to an alarming increase in the country's homicide rate.

A day before his death, Villavicencio had visited the prosecutor's office to file a complaint against mafia groups. His public statements against one of the sponsors of the prison mafia were also well-known. During his electoral campaign, Villavicencio emphasized that he wanted to campaign "with a sweaty shirt," despite recommendations to wear a bulletproof vest. The news of his assassination prompted widespread repulsion and condemnation from the political class and the population. Other presidential candidates like Yaku Pérez, Luisa González, Jan Topić, Xavier Hervas, Bolívar Armijos, and Otto Sonnenholzner condemned the act and suspended their public activities as a sign of mourning.

President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency in the country for 60 days, in an effort to prevent further escalation of the situation. This led to the deployment of military forces in various regions to maintain order and ensure that the elections could be held in a relatively secure environment. However, this measure has sparked controversy and debate regarding its effectiveness and necessity.

Organized Crime: Ecuador's major issue

he escalation of violence in Ecuador in recent years, largely connected to drug trafficking and the growing influence of Mexican and other foreign cartels, among others, has led to a concerning rise in the homicide rate in the country: it has increased from 7.78 in 2020 to 26.68 in 2022, as per official sources, and currently stands at 16.2 (as of June 6, 2023; per 100,000 inhabitants). Equally significant is the fact that on July 24th, the mayor of Manta, Agustín Intriago, fell victim to a deadly attack. While visiting a public project, he was shot six times in the chest. Likewise, on August 14th, Pedro Briones, a member of the Citizen Revolution Party, was assassinated in the province of Esmeraldas.

The governments' incompetence in curbing this issue is even more evident in the series of prison crises in recent years. In a recent attack at the Litoral Penitentiary, 31 inmates died in violence between criminal gangs. The situation triggered reactions in other prisons across the country, including riots, hostage-taking by prison staff, and hunger strikes. The Litoral Penitentiary was particularly affected, with 257 inmates killed in 14 massacres over a span of 28 months.

After Villavicencio's Assassination: A New Candidate and Vacancy in the Presidential Race

Villavicencio´s assassination not only left a huge void in the electoral campaign but also sparked a debate over who would take his place in the upcoming elections. The political movement "Construye," to which Villavicencio belonged, proposed journalist Christian Zurita as the presidential candidate to replace Fernando Villavicencio. Zurita and Fernando Villavicencio had closely collaborated for 15 years. In addition to their media work, both had conducted extensive investigations into corruption and organized crime in Ecuador. In statements to the press, Zurita emphasized that Villavicencio's government plan and ideas remain unchanged and will be implemented in his memory. Zurita referred to planned measures against terrorism and organized crime as part of his strategy to protect Ecuador. During the August 13th debate, an empty chair with a black ribbon was symbolically placed in memory of Villavicencio.

The Main Candidates and the Electoral Landscape

A total of eight candidacies have been registered with the National Electoral Council for these extraordinary elections. On August 20th, Ecuadorians will elect a President, Vice President, and 137 lawmakers: 15 at the national level, 116 regionally, and 6 from abroad. In Ecuador, the election of the President and Vice President follows a system of direct election. The chosen candidate must obtain a percentage of votes greater than 50% or have over 40% of the votes and a lead of at least 10% over the next candidate to win in the first round. If none of the candidates achieves these results, then the two most voted candidates will compete in a second round on October 15th. The elected officials will complete the constitutional term from 2021 to 2025.

These elections represent the first extraordinary electoral event since 1940 and also mark a historical milestone as they are convened under Article 148 of the National Constitution, commonly known as the "crossed death" (in German: "Überkreuzter Tod"), where both the president and the parliament are replaced simultaneously. Due to their exceptional nature, these elections will follow an expedited procedure. The newly elected President and Vice President will take office on November 25, 2023.

Among the eight candidates, Yaku Pérez (Alianza Claro que se puede) stands out on the left. He is an indigenous lawyer who came in third in the 2021 elections. Also on the left, we have Luisa González (Revolución Ciudadana), who represents 21st-century socialism and held various positions during the term of former President Rafael Correa. Furthermore, Bolívar Armijos (Movimiento AMIGO), formerly associated with Correa, represents left-wing currents. However, he is known for his strong religious orientation and is closer to conservative anti-abortion movements.

In the center political spectrum, Daniel Noboa (Alianza Democrática Nacional, ADN) embodies the center political camp. In the same direction moves the "Construye" movement, originally led by the late candidate Fernando Villavicencio and now represented by Christian Zurita. This movement has oscillated in the past between the center-left and the center-right, forming alliances with both the leftist Correa and Lasso governments. In a similar position is Xavier Heras, who ran in 2021 for the center-left and is now running for the RETO ("Desafío") movement, closer to the political center-right.

Two candidates are running on the right-wing political spectrum: one is Otto Sonnenholzner (Actuemos), who was vice-president during Lenín Moreno's term and supported outgoing president Lasso's candidacy in the 2021 elections, and the other is Jan Topić (Por un país sin miedo), an Ecuadorian-French candidate. These candidates participated in the presidential debate on Sunday, August 13. First impressions of the debate were described by the media as rough, polemic and without clear ideas.

According to the current polling results, Luisa Gonzalez (Revolucion Ciudadana) is in a promising position. However, the well-known tensions between former President Correa and the assassinated candidate Villavicencio could cost Gonzalez some votes. Nonetheless, this candidate is expected to advance to the second round. A simple average of the latest August election polls shows that she has 30.8% support. She is followed by Jan Topić (Por un país sin miedo) with 12.4%, Yaku Pérez (Alianza Claro que se puede) with 10.2%, the late Fernando Villavicencio of the "Construye" movement (10.1%) and Otto Sonnenholzner (Actuemos) with 9.9%. Given this situation, the question is which candidate will accompany Luisa González in the second round.

Ecuador Faces Serious Challenges

Ecuador's crisis is the culmination of a process of political destabilization in the country, in which former President Correa played a pivotal role. However, it also clearly illustrates the grave challenges that most Latin American democracies face: polarization, political violence, corruption, illegal campaign financing, and limited institutional capacity to enforce rules and laws while maintaining public security. The attempt to facilitate a fresh political start in Ecuador has now worsened the deep crisis in the country and serves as a warning for other countries in Latin America. If, in the face of this upheaval, political elites do not close ranks to recognize that intensified polarization will have disastrous long-term consequences, much could be gained. But there should be no overly optimistic expectations.

Niome Hüneke-Brown is the Director of Projects for the Andean Countries Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Lima, Peru.