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Crossing the Political Divide

Mar 1, 2002

Gustavo Noboa, Ecuador's president, has shown an uncanny ability to pick a path through Ecuador's political minefield. Will his successor?

Nowhere is the fragmentation of Ecuadorian society more apparent than in politics. The 123-seat, unicameral Congress contains representatives from 10 different parties (and 13 independents); the biggest party, the Social Christians (PSC) has just 24 members. Even in such a divided chamber, party loyalty is weak. Instead, representatives vote according to the regional or sectorial interests of their supporters, and neither the government nor the opposition has been able to form a working majority.
The executive branch is frequently disrupted. Two former presidents have fallen because of corruption charges since 1995; one is in jail, the other in exile. The last elected president, Jamil Mahuad, was removed in a coup staged in January 2000 by an unlikely alliance of military officers and indigenous groups. His vice-president and successor, Gustavo Noboa, became the sixth president in five years; he is currently on his fifth finance minister.
No Rule of Law
A constant complaint from ministers is that there is no rule of law. The judiciary is open to outside influence and frequently makes rulings in favor of powerful business or sectorial concerns. Almost any organized group - from businessmen to trades unions - can mobilize enough support among the bureaucracy to halt the progress of any measure it opposes.
Even if the government does have support in Congress for its ideas, it may not get representatives' votes. One example is a political reform bill now in Congress, which is broadly supported by many members. "The parties don't want to give Noboa the credit for doing it," says Fernando Bustamante, professor of government at San Francisco University, Quito. "Their position is, 'I agree, but I'll oppose you, because I want to do it myself'.
President Gustavo Noboa
That attitude may be particularly prevalent this year, with presidential elections due in October and Congressional elections (and a run-off for president if, as seems inevitable, there is no first round victory) in November. But the proximity of elections may be a plus for Noboa: with less than a year left in office, he is hardly worth deposing. And the president has shown himself skilled at manipulating the lack of an organized opposition in Congress. His veto power to overrule Congress can only be overturned with a two-thirds majority. The fragmentation of the opposition has made it impossible for them to muster the 82 votes needed to do this Noboa has been able to pass important legislation in this way, such as a new law to introduce private pension funds. When the law emerged from Congress, However, it specifically banned private funds.
The president has also been skilled in handling public opinion. His approval ratings are unusually high for a president in his second year in office. If, as seems likely, inflation continues to fall during the year and economic growth remains sturdy, his chances would be good of being able to chose his successor.
Noboa's problem is that there is no obvious succession candidate. He himself cannot run as the constitution forbids presidents from standing for re-election. He may try to side-step this rule on the basis that, not having been elected president in the first place, he would be running for the first time. However, it's far from clear if such a reading of the constitution would get past the judiciary. In any event, if Noboa is thinking of running he is keeping it quiet, presumably to keep his opponents from harassing him.

The other candidates must give him little cause for cheer. Leading the polls is independent tycoon Alvaro Noboa (no relation), whose largesse-bestowing populism has seen his share of voting intentions reach 40%, though he may have peaked early. Colonel Lucio Gutierrez, who led the coup against Mahuad and sees himself as Ecuador's Hugo Chávez, has gained ground in the polls but is unlikely to gain much more. Former president León Febrés Cordero has powerful support among the Guayaquil business community, but is mistrusted in Quito and cannot live at high altitudes because of ill health. The Roldosista Party of former president Abdalá Bucaram (also known as El Loco), who fled the country after falling foul of corruption charges in 1997, has offered President Noboa its support in exchange for a decree allowing him back without arrest. An outside candidate is Auqui Tituaña, the indigenous and popular mayor of Cotacachi. But it may be early days for Ecuador to follow Peru and elect an indigenous president.
Whoever wins is unlikely to find Congress any more united in support or opposition than it is now. No wonder ministers are keen to get initiatives underway that will survive the vicissitudes of Ecuadorian politics.


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