Ecuador's Vote Recount Comes Up Short

(Bloomberg View) -- Well into Tuesday night, blue-vested electoral officials sitting in plastic deck chairs combed through some 1.3 million disputed paper ballots in a recount that would decide the nation's next president. The setting: Rumiñahui Coliseum, in Quito, Ecuador, where Latin America's faltering pink tide still wells and the national script is too important to leave strictly to the vagaries of democratic fair play.

Just before 10 p.m., the national electoral council announced what few of the diligent polling officials -- or many others in Ecuador -- ever doubted. President Rafael Correa had won the day. Yes, Correa, who will step down in May after a decade of tempestuous populism, wasn't on the ballot. And yet with this validation of the narrow win by his handpicked successor -- fittingly named Lenin Moreno -- Ecuador's struggling "Citizen's Revolution" appears to have been rescued, and new life pumped into what remains of the continent's adventure in Bolivarian socialism.

Not that Correa's handlers fixed the election outright. The Organization of American States and other groups on hand attested to a clean recount. Rather, by authorizing the review of less than 12 percent of the national vote, instead of ordering a total recount of the April 2 runoff, officials at the ever-obliging national electoral council head-faked democratic transparency without having to run its risks.

There was room for doubt. After all, an exit poll conducted by Cedatos, the country's most respected pollster, had touted challenger Guillermo Lasso, of the center-right Creo-Suma coalition, to cinch the runoff. Such are the ground rules of Latin America's alt-left leaders, who over the past decade learned to pull all the levers of power to achieve a prefigured result while still claiming to respect the popular will and the rule of law.

Lasso, who'd demanded a nationwide recount, called Tuesday's billboarded event, which was streamed live on government websites, a farce. And judging by the laconic next-day headlines in the national media -- "Lenin Moreno added one hundredth of a percentage point in the recount," announced El Universo -- the rest of Ecuador was underwhelmed.

True, the shaky Bolivarians aren't the only ones whose legitimacy is being tested. Brazil's Michel Temer, thrust into office with last year's impeachment of the Workers' Party's Dilma Rousseff, has seen his approval ratings fall to single digits. Mauricio Macri's reform agenda is under siege in recession-smacked Argentina, while Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos is fighting to claw back the popularity he lost during the government's divisive peace deal with guerrillas. 

But the Latin left -- the partisan faction that owned the 2000s -- is feeling the worst of the popular backlash. Honors to President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, whose truculence has the streets seething with protestors, regime insiders rebelling, and even the country's accommodating neighbors raising their voices. Now Moreno, who boasts neither his mentor's balcony skills nor Machiavellian moves -- never mind the tailwind of the previous decade's commodities boom -- runs the risk of joining that benighted claque.

Moreno's win came after a bruising campaign that went two bitter rounds in February and April, culminating in the partial recount on April 18, which he took by just over 200,000 votes out of more than 10 million cast. Even then, Lasso carried the country's biggest cities. "I think that Correa didn't want to gamble on a full recount because he lacked confidence in what the outcome would be," Risa Grais-Targow, Andean analyst at the Eurasia Group, told me.

Fueling the worry was Ecuador's dragging economy, which shrank last year and will likely stay flat this year, Eurasia Group reckons. Though unemployment remains low by continental standards, the number of underemployed Ecuadoreans -- part-timers earning less than a minimum wage -- jumped from 17 percent to more than 21 percent in the 12 months to March, according to the National Statistics Bureau. The prostrate economy and mounting debt will constrain Moreno, who will have trouble honoring his pledge to expand social spending.

Correa's last act was to rescue a revolution in decline. Now Lenin Moreno has a big balcony to fill and a lot less magic for the citizens below.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

To contact the author of this story: Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net.

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