Ecuador's 'Citizen's Revolution' Expected to Go Ahead Full Throttle After Resounding Victory for the President

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa (L) and Vice-President elect Jorge Glass, celebrate their victory on Sunday's general elec
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa (L) and Vice-President elect Jorge Glass, celebrate their victory on Sunday's general election, at Carondelet presidential palace in Quito on February 18, 2013. Fresh from a landslide re-election victory, President Rafael Correa hoped Monday to match it with a sweeping legislative win needed to clear the way for deeper socialist changes in Ecuador. AFP PHOTO/RODRIGO BUENDIA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)

President Rafael Correa's thumping victory in Sunday's presidential election marks a break from Ecuador's recent history of political instability. Correa has now become the only president to win two consecutive elections in the first round of voting (2009 and 2013) and if he serves a full second term, which given his high popularity seems likely, he will have ruled Ecuador for a decade. That would be the longest presidential term in the country's history and something that was inconceivable when he took office in 2007 against the backdrop of three of his recent predecessors having being forced from office.

First the numbers: preliminary results show Correa gained over 56 percent of the vote. His nearest rival, former banker Guillermo Lasso came a distant second with 23 percent. Of the remaining six candidates, only Lucio Gutierrez managed to break the 5 percent barrier. The result is a six-point improvement on his performance in the 2009 election. Correa's Alianza País movement also looks set to win a majority in the National Assembly (Ecuador's congress), something that has evaded him since 2009. This is a remarkable turnaround for a president who looked like he could go the way of his predecessors as recently as 2010, when widespread protests by police officers in the streets of the capital forced him to impose a state of emergency to restore order.

Skill, luck and an authoritarian streak combine to deliver victory

So, how has he achieved this? Essentially, through a combination of luck, an authoritarian streak and political skill. The commodities boom of recent years -- particularly high oil prices -- have handed Correa the funds to lavish on popularity-boosting infrastructure projects and social programmes. His centralisation of power around the executive and the creation of a large network of state-owned media have allowed him both to control and remain at the centre of the political agenda. He also remains a formidable campaigner with well-tuned political senses and an eye for a public relations opportunity, evidenced by his relentless self-promotion, the promotion of government projects and his slick campaign adverts.

Correa's victory leaves Ecuador with a degree of political stability that is alien to its modern history. It also gives the president a virtually free hand to, in his words, "deepen" and "radicalise" his "citizens' revolution". For critics, this will mean further centralisation and consolidation of power around the executive. A controversial media law, approved in a referendum in 2011 but so far blocked by the opposition in the Assembly, will almost certainly be revived and approved. This, as has been the case in Venezuela and Argentina, is likely to open the door to closer regulation and censorship of the private media (with whom the president has regularly clashed during his time in office). Conflicts with indigenous groups are likely to increase as the government continues to develop and promote extractive industries in rural areas. Long-delayed bills on rights to water and land usage are expected to be pushed through. This will sustain already high dissatisfaction among indigenous groups (who oppose oil and mining activity) and the urban middle classes, and in turn fuel a growing sense of polarisation within Ecuadorean society.

On economic policy the Correa administration faces a choice: either to carry on with the state-led development model it has so far pursued, which has sidelined private sector activity and discouraged foreign investment. Or, reform the business environment to attract greater levels of foreign director investment (in 2011 Ecuador attracted the lowest foreign investment in South America behind Paraguay). The former will undoubtedly be a more attractive option for the president. Although the state will find it increasingly difficult to continue to raise public spending amid stagnant oil prices, ideological opposition within the Correa administration to what it labels unjustified personal enrichment and its insistence that Ecuador's natural resources are not for sale will prohibit a marked improvement in the business environment. As such, further regulation and taxes on private-sector profits are likely. This will support fiscal revenue in the short term but entrench the state's role as the main driver of economic activity, thus increasing the impact of an unanticipated fall in oil prices, on which the government depends for around 40 percent of revenue.

The president has already publicly denied he will amend the constitution to allow him to run again in 2017, but the strength of his mandate must increase the temptation to do so and speculation will inevitably mount over whether he will or who a likely successor could be. However, assuming he does step down, he now has four more years to implement his vision of a "citizens' revolution", but with increased congressional support and an even weaker opposition. Expect more of the same. Much more.

William Lee is Editor/Economist Latin America for The Economist Intelligence Unit.