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Ecuador - Politics - Recent Developments

From 1948-60, three presidents--beginning with Galo Plaza--were freely elected and completed their terms. Political turbulence returned in the 1960s, followed by a period of military dictatorship between 1972 and 1979. The 1980s and beginning of the 1990s saw a return to democracy, but instability returned by the middle of the decade.

Abdala Bucaram, from the Guayaquil-based Ecuadorian Roldosista Party (PRE), won the presidency in 1996 on a platform that promised populist economic and social policies, and challenged what Bucaram termed as the power of the nation's oligarchy. During his short term of office, Bucaram's administration was severely criticized for corruption. Bucaram was deposed by the Congress in February 1997 on grounds of alleged mental incompetence - he subsequently fled to Panama and enjoys political asylum there. In his place, Congress named Fabian Alarcon interim president. Alarcon's presidency was endorsed by a May 1997 popular referendum.

Quito mayor Jamil Mahuad of the Popular Democracy party was elected president by a narrow margin in July 1998. Mahuad concluded a historic peace agreement with Peru on October 26, 1998, but increasing economic, fiscal, and financial difficulties drove his popularity steadily lower. On January 21, 2000, during demonstrations in Quito by indigenous groups, the military and police refused to enforce public order. Demonstrators entered the congressional building and declared a three-person "junta" in charge of the country. Field-grade military officers declared their support for the concept. During a night of confusion and negotiations, President Mahuad fled the presidential palace. Vice President Gustavo Noboa took charge and Mahuad went on national television to endorse Noboa as his successor. Congress met in emergency session in Guayaquil the same day, 22 January 2000, and ratified Noboa as President of the Republic.

Completing Mahuad's term, Noboa restored some stability to Ecuador. He implemented the dollarization of the economy that Mahuad had announced and obtained congressional authorization for the construction of Ecuador's second major oil pipeline, this one financed by a private consortium. Noboa turned over the government on January 15, 2003, to his successor, Lucio Gutierrez, a former army colonel who first came to public attention as a member of the short-lived "junta" of January 21, 2000. Gutierrez' campaign featured an anti-corruption and leftist, populist platform.

President Lucio Gutierrez's comments in 2004 favoring the return of exiled former President Abdala Bucaram ignited a political firestorm in Ecuador, with leading opposition parties promising that impeachment proceedings would shortly follow. Bucaram continued to lead the Ecuadorian Roldosista party (PRE) en absentia. Analysts surmised that Gutierrez, seeking an alliance between the PRE and his own Patriotic Society party (PSP), had acquiesced to the former's primary goal and platform plank, "the return of Abdala." The Social Christians (PSC) loudly opposed, arguing that court orders demanding Bucaram's immediate arrest for fraud remained in force. PRE leadership, however, assert that a provincial judge rescinded the orders in 2001, allowing for the swift return of their beloved master.

After taking office, however, Gutierrez adopted relatively conservative fiscal policies and defensive tactics, including replacing the Supreme Court and declaring a state of emergency in the capital on 15 April 2005 to combat mounting opposition. With the support of a spectacularly favorable external economic climate, responsible economic management, and strong support from the US for democratic stability, Gutierrez just scraped by three significant attempts to bring down his government in its first two years. Finally, Gutierrez succumbed after two years and three months, mostly to his own mistakes.

The final days of the Gutierrez government saw the formation of a "new" political force in Quito. The forajidos, or outlaws, taking on as a badge of honor an epithet spat at protestors by Gutierrez, were actually made up principally of middle and upper-middle class Quito residents disgusted by the corruption and petty political infighting of the entire political class and fearful of the prospect of another Bucaram presidency. The ranks of the forajidos were filled out by radical university students and troublemakers, many connected to the Popular Democratic Movement (MPD), the quasi-communist party.

The situation came to a head on April 20, 2005, when political opponents and popular uprisings in Quito prompted Congress to strip Gutierrez of the presidency for allegedly "abandoning his post." When the military withdrew its support, Gutierrez went into temporary exile. Congress declared Vice President Alfredo Palacio the new president. A semblance of stability returned, but the Palacio administration failed to achieve congressional support for major reforms.

After 25 years of democracy, the general population was disillusioned. Democracy was associated with rampant corruption. When looking to find those responsible for democracy's failure, many see the US, the IMF, and globalization as the enemies, instead of identifying elements in Ecuadorian society that prevent true democracy and economic justice from flourishing.

Political instability severely limits the government, weakening governments by making them vulnerable to destabilization. The next elected president would be Ecuador's eighth in the past decade, and faced similar challenges which had toppled the past three elected presidents well before the end of their terms. To break the cycle of instability, Ecuador badly needed a president to serve out a four year term. In the past, public disenchantment with the political party elite has favored outsiders like ex-president Gutierrez, who came from nowhere in the early polls to win in 2002. This time around, the most appealing outsider candidate was Rafael Correa, a former finance minister and economist.



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