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Financial Times – Electoral blow sparks changes in Ecuador but Correa still firmly in charge

Date: Feb 27, 2014

A year ago Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s leftwing president, was riding high after winning a third term in a landslide election.

Some say his party, Alianza País, got too used to winning. This week, Correa was looking more subdued after the opposition won the country’s key mayoralties – Guayaquil, Cuenca and, most painfully, the capital Quito – in Sunday’s local elections.

The result is a setback for Correa’s “citizen’s revolution” and its aim of increasing the role of the state in the economy, as it means he can no longer count on the support of heavyweight mayoralties.

Correa called the results “painful” and said losing Quito was “very sad and dangerous” and could make Ecuador “ungovernable”. The fiery president even drew parallels with Venezuela, an ally that has seen a wave of street protests in recent weeks, saying some members of the opposition were “counting the days for the government to fall.”

He followed that on Wednesday by asking for the resignation of his cabinet, saying “oxygenation” was necessary. Although he insisted the move was planned before the elections, analysts say Alianza País is showing signs of internal fractures.

Commentators say key changes could come in the ministry of non-renewable natural resources, a crucial ministry in the smallest of the Opec nations, which produces about 520,000 barrels of oil a day.

Nevertheless, and despite the electoral blow, the opposition is fragmented and Correa remains the country’s leading political figure. According to Tatiana Larrea, a pollster at CEES, a consultancy in Quito, the president has approval ratings of more than 70 per cent in the three cities where his party lost on Sunday.

“People support Correa at a national level, but they don’t like it when he meddles too much in local affairs,” says Larrea, adding that voters disapproved of his active participation in the campaign to elect 5,661 provincial and municipal representatives, including 221 mayors.

Indeed, according to a recent report by Analytica Investments, a Quito-based consultancy:

President Correa has spent seven years in a constant political mobilisation emphasised by bursts of particularly intense campaigning in the weeks before an election… signs are strong that Ecuadorians have grown tired of this.

Critics say he promoted his candidates too aggressively and describe him as a bully who has the banks, environmental groups and -despite playing host to WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange – the media as his whipping boys.

Correa can probably afford to shrug off such concerns. After years of lurching from one crisis to another from the early 1980s onwards, Ecuador has enjoyed stability and growth since the charismatic Correa took office in 2007, with annual GDP expansion averaging some 5 per cent.

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