A bellwether on corruption in Latin America?

The pandemic may have stalled anti-graft campaigns in the region, but an election in Ecuador shows voters still want integrity in leaders.

Guillermo Lasso, winner of Ecuador's April 11 presidential election, waves to supporters at his campaign headquarters in Guayaquil.

The pandemic has interrupted a remarkable streak in Latin America – a popular assault on corruption. Since 2015, an upwelling of demand for honest governance felled hundreds of the region’s corrupt political and business elite. COVID-19 has put the focus elsewhere.

That streak, however, continues in at least one country. In Ecuador last week, a presidential election resulted in a victory for Guillermo Lasso, a former banker who promises independence for judges and prosecutors when he takes office next month. His opponent in the April 11 election, Andrés Arauz, was easily tied to a former president, Rafael Correa, who was convicted of bribery last year and given an eight-year sentence. (Mr. Correa fled to Belgium to avoid prison.)

Mr. Lasso, who “believes in good ideas and not ideologies,” was able to tap into public anger at scandals over purchasing medical supplies during the pandemic. And voters were reminded again last week of the need to root out corruption with the arrest of a former boss of the state-owned oil company, Petroecuador.

“Lasso gives a sensation of tranquility, of stability, and of independence of branches and institutions that has allowed the prosecution to start to act almost immediately,” Mauricio Alarcón, head of the transparency watchdog Citizenship and Development Foundation, told Bloomberg News.

Compared with other countries in Latin America, Ecuador’s news media and watchdog groups are above-average in monitoring graft, according to the 2020 Capacity to Combat Corruption Index. In addition, Attorney General Diana Salazar is a model in the region for integrity and for going after graft in high places. Since 2012, the country has significantly improved its standing in a global corruption index.

Still, a 2019 survey by Transparency International found perceptions of corruption remain high. Nearly 1 out of 4 people say they were victims of corruption. Nearly two-thirds believe more than half of Ecuador’s politicians are corrupt. And in last week’s election, about 1 in 5 voters refused to vote despite laws that make voting mandatory.

Mr. Lasso says he will seek international help to combat organized crime in Ecuador. “There will be no impunity,” he promised. With the end of the pandemic in sight, this small country of 17 million people may be showing that Latin America is not done yet with lifting up its standards and electing leaders with clean hands.

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