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Tear Gas and Disputed Elections in Ecuador

Yesterday was the run-off for the presidential election; and it did not go smoothly.

Last night I watched the election returns with friends. A few minutes after the polls closed at 5pm exit polls were released. The station reported the opposition candidate, Lasso, with 53% and the ruling party candidate, Lenin, with 47%. They called the election for Lasso and went to shots of him giving a victory speech to his supporters. That’s it, election over.

I stopped by a friend’s house on my way home, curious to see her reaction. We turned on the TV, to a different station, and, based on a different exit poll, they were declaring Lenin the winner. The official results would be released at 8pm so we waited.

The current president, Rafael Correa, has been in power for over ten years. Impressive considering that the previous three presidents were all overthrown. Even more impressive when you consider that each presidential term is four years and when elected there was a rule prohibiting consecutive terms. After enjoying unprecedented levels of popularity early on Correa has become an incredibly divisive figure. Roughly half the nation thinks he’s a dictator, the other half still support him.

If you only read the international media you would think a victory for Correa’s government would be a victory for the left. Through, here in Ecuador, everyone I know who identifies as leftist hates Correa and nearly all social movements that have not yet been coopted or crushed by the government are also strongly opposed. I consider Latacunga to be the most politically radical city in Ecuador—that’s a big part of why I made this place my home. Back in 2006 and 2009, in Correa’s first two elections, this was his power base. This was also where the 2006 revolt began that raised his profile before the election. Latacunga has slowly but surely transitioned from one of his bases to a city in defiance of the man they helped elect. The public university here is the only one in the nation that has successfully held out against government cooption into the ‘official’ student and professional unions organized by the government. It’s still run by Marxists. In a nearly evenly split election yesterday, the government candidate lost Latacunga in a landslide: 61 to 39.

At 8pm there was a press conference from Participación Ciudadana, a non-governmental organization meant to act as a double check on election results. They announced that, according to their data, the election was a ‘technical tie,’ and they could not declare a winner. They claimed the two candidates were separated by 0.6%, though they did not say who had the lead.

A few minutes later CNE, the governmental body responsible for the elections, held a press conference. They announced that Lenin won 51 to 49.

The country is so divided that both sides, worried the other would try to steal the election, had begun holding protests outside CNE headquarters while voting was still ongoing. After the CNE press conference the government supporters started to celebrate as opposition protests grew across the country. In the capital, they broke through police lines and charged at CNE headquarters. In Latacunga police tear gassed the crowds.

Today, I ate lunch with a group of friends. Of course we talked about the election.

“This is fraud, but what can we do? We can’t protest anymore, if we do we’ll end up in jail.”

This afternoon Participación Ciudadana held a new press conference. Besides remarking that they had received death threats they also now say that Lenin won; 50.8 to 49.2.

Whoever won the election, the losing side was likely to call fraud, not because there was fraud but because of the stark division between the two. The political environment is toxic; and each side always blames the other. Though, that outside monitoring groups all came up with figures less favorable to the government than the official figures is suspicious to say the least.

Sadly, I don’t think anything will happen beyond a week of protests. When Correa was first elected in 2006 I so admired this nation and its will to fight. So much has changed since then. In 2006, in protest of a free trade agreement with the United States a group of indigenous farmers descended on Latacunga and blocked the highway in and out, cutting off the city from the rest of the world. The protest struck a chord and within days most of the country had joined the strike and the government pulled out of talks. Correa rose his public profile just months before the election by speaking eloquently in defense of the protesters.

Right at the spot where that first group of farmers stopped traffic the government has built a mega-jail that holds 5,000 prisoners, and some of the leaders of that strike have since been arrested and jailed when they continued to protest after Correa took office.

While Correa mostly chastises the United States, he has also made Ecuador much more similar to the US in many ways. Lots of people here are unhappy with the government but they no longer feel they have the power to change anything, so they accept, out of apathy and fear.

Lenin will be the next president.

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