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QUITO, Ecuador — Whoever wins Ecuador’s presidential election will get 18 months to tackle a herculean task: Restoring order in a once largely peaceful country that’s now increasingly consumed by spreading drug violence.
Voters cast ballots Sunday at a moment unlike any in this South American nation’s history. Ecuador has become a crucial transit point and violent battleground for drug traffickers moving cocaine to the United States and Europe. The narco-violence is helping fuel a surge of migration to the United States.
In August, that violence spilled into the election campaign: Former lawmaker Fernando Villavicencio, who was running for president on promises to crack down on links between criminals and politicians, was shot to death as he was leaving a campaign rally in Quito days before the first round of voting. This month, seven suspects in his killing were found dead in prison.
Now voters will choose between two candidates with different proposals for bringing security to a country desperate for it. Daniel Noboa, a 35-year-old center-right businessman, emerged as a surprise runner-up in the first round of voting Aug. 20. He is competing against Luisa González, a leftist former lawmaker loyal to former president Rafael Correa, a leader over whom Ecuadorians are still divided.
Either candidate would make history: González would become the country’s first female president. Noboa would be the youngest.
Ecuador to hold runoff election between leftist and millennial businessman
Voters will be choosing a caretaker to serve the final 18 months of President Guillermo Lasso’s term. The beleaguered conservative avoided possible impeachment in May by dissolving the legislature, a constitutionally permissible move that allowed him to rule by decree but required a new election be held within six months. Lasso did not seek reelection.
“I think this presidency is going to be the worst job in Latin America for the next year and a half,” said Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “You’re going to be blamed for all of the deepening of the current problems or at least the stasis.”
Noboa, the son of a wealthy banana tycoon, has shown a slight lead in recent polls. Life-size “Cardboard Noboas,” displayed by supporters on balconies, in night clubs and on surf boards, have gone viral on TikTok in recent days. He vows to fix the country’s security crisis by overhauling the prison authority and creating a centralized intelligence unit.
The millennial could ride a wave of support from young people. “He is young, but he is prepared to govern,” said 18-year-old Valeria Córdova, a recent high school graduate in Quito who hopes to study nursing.
González promises to restore some Correa-era ministries, such as the Justice Ministry, and address the root causes of crime through social programs.
“She’ll apply an iron fist against delinquents, just like Correa,” said Wilson Suárez, a 45-year-old lab technician in Quito.
If González wins, it’ll be yet another example of a Latin American country punishing its right-wing incumbent by electing a leftist. Her victory could raise alarms in the United States at a time when Washington wants Ecuador’s cooperation to combat drug trafficking.
Caroline Avila, an Ecuadorian analyst, called anger with Guillermo Lasso “the great mobilizer.”
But the election is, like others in Ecuador’s recent history, a referendum on former president Correa, a popular but controversial figure — convicted of corruption — who is praised for combating inequality but reviled for his authoritarian tendencies.
A recent poll showed that almost 40 percent of Ecuadorians identified as neither pro- nor anti-Correa, perhaps suggesting a shift in the polarizing climate that has dominated politics for so long in this country.
“This is the group that will choose the next president,” said political scientist Francisco Montahuano.