Ecuador's populist leader still strong

President Rafael Correa is expected to win big in today's vote. He talks like a leftist, but many say he doesn't act like one.

Fernando Vergara/AP
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, right, votes during presidential elections in Quito, Sunday.

In December, Edita Matailo's husband stopped sending money home to Ecuador after he lost his construction job in Spain. Since then, her support for Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has only grown stronger.

"He is the only one who cares about the poor," says Mrs. Matailo, sucking on a popsicle on a recent day as she sits with her children and a friend in San Jose de Moran, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Quito. "If it weren't for his subsidies, we would not be making ends meet."

Her words could have been spoken in Caracas, Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez has poured billions into social programs for the poor, or in rural Bolivia, where President Evo Morales has handed new powers to long-oppressed indigenous people. And it is such sentiments that have given Mr. Correa a clear advantage, according to several polls, in today's presidential elections.

But unlike his peers in the region, Mr. Correa is more difficult to categorize. Despite fiery rhetoric against the US and the wealthy, and social spending that mirrors popular efforts by leftists across Latin America, many political observers say Correa sits on neither the left nor the right.

"Correa has two blinkers on. He turns his car signal on the left, but he turns to the right," says Augusto Tandazo, an adviser to Correa during his 2006 campaign. "There is a double discourse that is contradictory. We have to ask ourselves, 'Which of the two Correas is it?' "

Correa has increased subsidies to the poor and invested in health, education, and infrastructure projects. Last year, he rewrote the Constitution and gave the state greater control over the economy. He defaulted on some of the nation's foreign debt, calling the terms unfair. He expelled US diplomats for "interfering" in Ecuadorian affairs and has cozied up to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He also has refused to allow the US to renew its military lease at the Manta base.

All this has helped push him to the front of elections, capturing nearly 50 percent in a recent Cedatos-Gallup poll. His closest rivals, Alvaro Noboa and former President Lucio Gutiérrez, register support just in the teens.

"The lower classes feel vindicated, as Correa has proven to be a good avenger against the oligarchy," says Pablo Andrade, a political scientist at Andina Simón Bolívar University in Quito. "The meaning of the left is not clear in Ecuador, but [part of it] is the reaction against neoliberalism that has built up over the last 50 years."

At the same time, Correa has maintained his distance from leftists in the region. He has not joined the Bolívarian Alternative for the Americas, for example, a Chávez alternative to free-trade policies he says are dictated by Washington. And while Mr. Chávez and Mr. Morales have decried international finance institutions, Correa has turned to them for loans, says Mr. Andrade.

While Chávez talks of 21st-century socialism, Correa comes from a tradition of Roman Catholic humanism. Morales comes from the union movement, as does Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; Correa tends to rely on a close circle of friends.

"I don't think he's a leftist deep in his heart, but being a leftist pays in Ecuador," says Fernando Santos, a political analyst in Quito. For example, many people say the new Constitution, a far-reaching document passed last fall, is more radical than Correa himself. "He is a person full of conflicts. He is moved by his hatred of the ruling classes, but, as a Catholic, he has to forgive his enemies.… He insults banks every day but doesn't touch interest rates. He speaks like a leftist, but does not act like one."

The inability to pigeonhole Correa is what initially drew many supporters. A former economics professor, Correa was a virtual unknown when he won the presidency in 2006. Voters were seeking a break from mainstream parties. "He is not one of the corrupt politicians of the past," says Mrs. Matailo. "He is giving us back what they have robbed from us."

But such sentiment could change. His policies were formed as commodity prices hit record highs. Now, money sent home from abroad is falling, the drop in oil has shrunk coffers, and, because Ecuador uses US dollars as its official currency, it can't print more or devalue it to boost exports.

"He's been very popular for working toward a nationalist, autonomous policy," says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "But his popularity could suffer a very significant fall if the economy suffers."

Rosa Gualavisi, who runs a restaurant on the main plaza of San José de Moran, says employment is her biggest concern – one she thinks has gone unaddressed. The rising cost of basic foods means she barely sees a profit at month's end. "Yes, I get a subsidy, but as a woman trying to work, he's hurt me too much," she adds.

Correa also faces new challenges as the party he aligns with, Alianza Pais, is expected to win the most seats in the new legislature. In 2006, Alianza Pais ran no candidates, as Correa said all parties were corrupt. "What's really at stake is how much stronger his Alianza Pais becomes after the election," says Andrade. "It could mean serious trouble, if there is no credible threat from the right or the left. It will be like signing a blank check."

Yet Correa offers a sense of stability Ecuadorians yearn for. The country toppled three presidents in a decade; Correa could be president for a decade. His oratorical skills and charm help. "He is handsome, full of charisma," says Mr. Santos. "He could sell sunglasses to a blind man."•

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