SEVERAL Latin nations that were once military dictatorships are now democracies. But the combination of high voter expectations and hard times (a result of falling oil prices and rising foreign debt) makes it difficult for an incumbent political party to win reelection. Opposition candidates have won seven of the eight Latin elections since 1982. The latest example is Sunday's runoff election in Ecuador, one of the first Latin nations to shuck its military dictatorship for a democracy. Inflation has been running at 70 percent annually, and less than half the work force has full-time employment. The conservative candidate from President Le'on Febres Cordero's ruling party did not even make the runoffs.
Fortunately, from the standpoint of a strengthened democracy and internal harmony, the more moderate of the two remaining leftist candidates, Rodrigo Borja Cevallos, won. Both candidates had pledged to move away from the current government's free-market stance and pro-United States foreign policy, but a win by radical populist Abdal'a Bucaram Ortiz might have provoked a coup. He was forced to flee to Panama in 1984 after insulting Ecuador's armed forces. A fiery campaigner who openly admired Adolf Hitler's political methods and accused his opponent of being a drunkard and a drug addict, Mr. Bucaram had promised voters he would provide free shoes for all poor children, double the monthly minimum wage, and raise the taxes of the rich.
Mr. Borja, though a dull speaker by comparison, is considered honest and pragmatic. He tells Ecuadorean businessmen that he will respect private enterprise - despite his pledge to establish controls on exchange rates and the prices of basic consumer goods. He has also promised to back a moratorium on payment of Ecuador's $9.2 billion foreign debt unless easier terms are negotiated.
No clear political pattern has yet emerged from Latin elections of the '80s. Voters have chosen candidates on both the left and the right. What they don't choose is a continuation of the government in power. Many Latins are weary of the sacrifice and austerity required by economic reforms and are not sure that free-market solutions and full payback of debts are the best answer. Thus Ecuador's choice of a left-of-center candidate may prove the forerunner of a new round of populism among Latin democracies.