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Ecuador presidential vote promises shift from the right. Military will stay in barracks - if social democrat wins

Ecuadoreans head to the polls this Sunday to choose a new president. In a run-off election, they will choose either center-left social democratic candidate Rodrigo Borja Cevallos, or radical populist Abdal'a Bucaram Ortiz. The two candidates' success in emerging as the top contenders in the first round of voting Jan. 31 is widely seen as a rebuff of President Le'on Febres Cordero's right-wing government for its economic policies and human rights abuses.

Not only do President Febres Cordero and the right dislike Mr. Borja, but the President is also widely believed to fear a legal backlash from a social democratic administration that may investigate corruption allegations surrounding his regime.

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Borja, of the Democratic Left Party, leads the polls. Three separate opinion polls in April gave him as much as a 20 percent lead: Borja was projected to win 46.5 to 48.7 percent of the votes; Mr. Bucaram, about 28 percent.

If Borja does win, it is generally acknowledged the military will likely support him. ``Military governments here have generally been progressive,'' says Luis Proano, head of an academic foundation in Quito. ``They introduced the workers' code and agrarian reform. If Borja gets in, there will be no trouble as the military tend toward the social democrats anyway.''

But should Mr. Bucaram of the Roldosist Party win, it would probably provoke a coup, says Dr. Proano. ``Bucaram is bribable, knows nothing of economics, and has no respect for the law. His promise to free the commandos jailed for kidnapping Febres Cordero strikes at the heart of military discipline. A coup would be most likely,'' he say. (In 1987, dissident paratroopers kidnapped the President in an effort to free a rebel leader.)

Western diplomats are more ambivalent. They say the military is split between those who believe democracy must be respected at all costs and those who feel that Bucaram would seriously harm the country and subvert the Constitution.

Ecuador's military was the first in a wave of Latin American military dictatorships to relinquish power to a civilian leader in 1979. The military here has a liberal tradition of defending the Constitution and the sovereignty of natural resources. These factors drove it to oust the despotic rule of Jos'e Mar'ia Velasco Ibarra four times, resulting in a series of military dictatorships during the 1970s.

A young military officer and academic sources say Febres Cordero has at times tried to persuade the military to back him in announcing himself dictator. His failure to do so reflects many high-ranking military officers' personal disdain for the President. This springs from the traditional suspicion of those from the Sierra, from which most of the military comes, for coastal leaders. Both the President and Bucaram are from the coast.

It also indicates the military's unwillingness to return to politics. As one diplomat points out: ``In the '70s the military enjoyed a booming economy thanks to oil. There's no longer any money in the kitty. They know it would be a different story now.''

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Bucaram, a former Guayaquil mayor, is the standard bearer of the coast's historic populist tradition. Projecting himself as the force of the poor, as both the down-trodden victim and the heroic liberator, Bucaram's electoral heartland is in Guayaquil's slums. He built roads and drains and provided rubble to fill in the stagnant, malaria-infested swamps.

But he faces 44 charges ranging from defamation to extortion and fraud and has a reputation for violence. He admires the political methods of Adolph Hitler while comparing himself to Jesus Christ.

A car mechanic in the slum of Guasmo said: ``We believe in him because of what we have seen him do. We don't care what he does elsewhere as long as he helps us. Politics is one thing, life is another.''

A Borja victory would likely strengthen Ecuador's democracy. Since 1979, civilian rule has been a turbulent affair in which varying interpretations of the Constitution have provoked bitter power clashes, particularly between the executive and congress. It is generally thought that Borja would enjoy the support of a firm alliance in congress.

Although an ideologist, Borja is generally perceived to be a pragmatist. He has the reputation of being a sincere and honest man. And he is generally thought to be a shy but highly capable leader.

Borja says he wants a stronger state role in the economy. He says he would like to re-introduce stricter exchange and interest rate controls; stimulate selected areas of industry and agriculture with government incentives; and continue to encourage foreign investment.

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