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Ecuadoran Presidential Election Approaches Amid Deepening Economic Concerns - 2002-09-28


In Ecuador, 11 presidential candidates are campaigning for votes in the October 20 election, with a runoff vote in November almost a certainty. This election comes at a time of deepening concerns over the economy and tensions along the border with war-plagued Colombia.

Until recent years, Ecuador was a quiet little nation where political issues were all local. But corruption scandals in the 1990's and a military coup two years ago have shaken up the electorate. The spillover of drug and guerrilla violence from neighboring Colombia has also had a deep impact.

The candidates in Ecuador's presidential election cover a broad range of ideologies and experience. Leading the pack, according to the latest public opinion polls are former president Rodrigo Borja, who ruled from 1988 to 1992, and Alvaro Noboa, a multi-millionaire who, in spite of his links to international business, is running a populist campaign.

Much of the battle is taking place on the nation's airwaves. In his ads, Mr. Borja concentrates on such issues as education. He says he wants to work with U.S. software giant Microsoft to bring more computers into classrooms in Ecuador.

Around 80 percent of Ecuador's 12 million people live in poverty and the country has been unable to create enough jobs for the workforce. Mr. Borja says the country needs a better-educated people in order to attract new industries.

Mr. Noboa has also addressed the economic problems of the country and has gained attention by spending a lot of his own money on his campaign. He is complaining about recent electoral tribunal decisions that could restrict his campaign. Through massive advertising, Mr. Noboa has sought to overcome the advantage Mr. Borja has as a well-known former leader. The strategy appeared to work, until recently, when Mr. Noboa dropped from first place in some polls and Mr. Borja moved up.

Thalia Flores, a political analyst and editor of Quito's Hoy newspaper, says Mr. Noboa may have harmed his image with too much spending. She says Ecuadorans are uneasy with the amount of money Mr. Noboa has spent, especially since he has surpassed legal limits on spending.

But, Ms. Flores says, Alvaro Noboa has made an impact on many voters with his populist approach and could still win. She says Rodrigo Borja's main appeal comes from the image he created when he was in office a decade ago. She says that while the Borja government may not have had any big success to its credit, it was not plagued by scandal, as have been some recent governments. She says many voters look on Mr. Borja as a well-experienced man who managed a clean administration.

Ecuador is still a relatively peaceful nation where tourism, bananas and oil are the main pillars of the economy. Two years ago, this Andean nation of 12 million people adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency. This caused a spike in inflation in the first several months, but many economists now see it as a stabilizing factor.

What Thalia Flores and other analysts say could be a de-stabilizing factor for Ecuador is the spillover of violence from Colombia.

She says Colombia has expelled many criminals into Ecuador, where they have contributed to a rise in assaults and other violent crimes. She says Ecuador has had to send 10,000 soldiers to its northern frontier to deal with rebel incursions as well as the expansion of cocaine-production from Colombia into Ecuador. Ms. Flores says Ecuador cannot afford to maintain such a force on the Colombian border indefinitely.

So far, the tension on the Colombian border has not become a big campaign issue, but many Ecuadoran observers believe the border situation will represent a major challenge for whoever does win the election.

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