Party Politics in the 1980s

Ecuador Table of Contents

Ecuadorian politics in the 1980s constituted an increasingly bitter struggle among conservative, center-left, and far-left parties and their leaders. Political scientist Catherine M. Conaghan, commenting on the declining standards of Ecuadorian political discourse in the late 1980s, noted that "in the absence of strong institutions and new ideas, Ecuadorian politics has devolved into a highly personalized and often trivialized arena of intra-elite struggle."

Party competition in the 1980s was mainly between the PSC (Christian Social Party) and the ID (Democratic Left). Many blamed the heightened interparty friction on Febres Cordero, the PSC leader who won the presidency by polling 52.2 percent in the second round of voting in May 1984. Febres Cordero narrowly defeated Borja, who polled 47.8 percent as the ID candidate. Febres Cordero's conservative National Reconstruction Front (Frente de Reconstrución Nacional--FRN) coalition consisted of seven parties, including the traditional PC and PLR. The FRN held only twenty-nine of the seventy-one seats in Congress, however, and the opposition effectively controlled the remaining forty-two. The resulting political infighting threatened the stability of the country's fragile democracy on several occasions.

Febres Cordero promised an honest public administration and a revival of market principles in managing the economy. Nevertheless, his government suffered from a succession of political and economic crises. Ruling more in the style of a caudillo than an elected politician, Febres Cordero used his executive powers boldly, creating a number of constitutional conflicts with the other two branches of government. For example, in late 1985 he promulgated a controversial bill changing the electoral law and postponing the legislative elections scheduled for early 1986. The proposed reform, which was defeated in the plebiscite held on June 1, 1986, would not only have given the executive extraordinary economic powers, but would also have limited the right of habeas corpus, set a four-year term for all members of Congress, and allowed independents to be elected. Febres Cordero's authoritarian rule and strongly pro-United States policies were blamed for his government's major political defeat in the mid-term congressional elections by allied center-left and Marxist parties, which captured forty-three of the legislature's seventy-one seats.

Certain high-ranking military officials posed a challenge to Febres Cordero in 1986. He dismissed the armed forces chief of staff, Air Force Lieutenant General Frank Vargas Pazzos, for accusing the minister of national defense and an army commander of corruption. Vargas subsequently staged a week-long double revolt-- first at the Eloy Alfaro Air Base in Manta on the Pacific Coast and then at Quito's Marshal Sucre International Airport--and demanded the resignations of the two military leaders. A bloody battle in March ended the second revolt and resulted in Vargas's arrest. Although Congress granted Vargas amnesty that October, a decision upheld by the TGC, Febres Cordero refused to honor the decision, sparking a constitutional controversy.

During a presidential visit to the Taura Air Base outside Guayaquil in January 1987, paratroop commandos loyal to Vargas abducted Febres Cordero and his defense minister. They were released eleven hours later after Febres Cordero personally granted amnesty to Vargas and signed a written guarantee that no reprisals would be taken against either the rebellious former general or his commandos. A few days later, however, the army arrested the ninety- four paratroopers, who were then expelled from the air force. A military tribunal sentenced fifty-eight of them to prison sentences ranging from six months to sixteen years.

Rather than rallying around the president following the near overthrow of the democratic system, the leftist-dominated Congress called a special session to consider impeaching Febres Cordero for allowing himself to be kidnapped and then negotiating his release by freeing Vargas. Although the opposition was unable to obtain the two-thirds majority needed to impeach the president, it approved a nonbinding demand that Febres Cordero resign for "disgracing" the national honor.

Running as both a Socialist and a populist, Vargas participated in the first round of the 1988 presidential elections as the representative of the People's Patriotic Union (Unión del Pueblo Patriótico--UPP). To the surprise of many, Vargas placed fourth by garnering over 12 percent of the vote. In that election, Vargas's UPP also allied itself with the PSE (Ecuadorian Socialist Party), the Ecuadorian Revolutionary Popular Alliance (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Ecuatoriana--APRE), and FADI (Broad Left Front).

Also running as a center-left candidate was Jamil Mahuad Witt, a DP protégé of former president Osvaldo Hurtado. Mahuad won 11.5 percent of the vote. On the far left, Jaime Hurtado ran as the candidate of the Maoist-oriented Democratic Popular Movement (Movimiento Popular Democrático--MPD), with the backing of the FADI, but collected only 5 percent of the vote, behind the CFP's Angel Duarte, with nearly 8 percent.

Another contender was PRE leader Abdalá Bucaram Ortiz, who returned from Panama, where he had fled in 1985 after criticizing the armed forces, to participate in the first round of the presidential elections. Febres Cordero allowed the flamboyant, mercurial Bucaram to return in the belief that his candidacy would help weaken the center-left and unite the right. The 18.4 percent of the vote Bucaram garnered shocked all the candidates and their parties, especially those on the disunited right, whose prime contender, the PSC's Sixto Durán Ballén, placed third with not quite 15 percent of the vote. A high voter turnout (nearly 78 percent) throughout the country and particularly in Guayaquil contributed to Bucaram's impressive showing. He suddenly became a major challenger by edging out Durán and placing second to Rodrigo Borja who, as expected, was in first place, with 24.5 percent.

Accordingly, the second round of the presidential elections in May 1988 was a contest between Borja and Bucaram. Despite their lack of substantive policy differences--both favored economic nationalism and import substitution--their campaigns were characterized by hard-hitting personal attacks that, Conaghan notes, "brought the level of political discourse to a new low." Borja won, as expected, with 1.7 million ballots, or 47.4 percent of the vote. Bucaram, with the aid of the Lebanese community in Guayaquil, polled 40.3 percent, totaling about 1.45 million votes. (Of the approximately 3.8 million ballots cast, 425,000 were null and 45,000 blank.) This was a much better showing than expected, especially considering the failure of his PRE to win the support of any of the other major registered parties. Bucaram subsequently fled the country again to avoid an arrest order issued by the president of Guayaquil's Superior Court for alleged malfeasance when he was mayor of Guayaquil in 1985. Nevertheless, according to Conaghan, the electoral results legitimized Bucaram as a national leader and assured him a future role as a presidential contender.

Although Borja lost in the five coastal provinces, he carried the fourteen provinces of the Sierra and Oriente (eastern region), as well as the Galápagos Islands. (Sucumbíos, the twenty-first province, was not created until 1989.) He also made an important showing in Guayas Province and adjacent Los Ríos Province, winning about 33 percent of the vote. Borja's ID became the majority party by winning twenty-nine of the seventy-one seats in Congress and entering into a coalition with the Popular Democratic Union (Unión Democrática Popular--UDP) and DP (Popular Democracy), with seven seats, and FADI, with two seats. FADI was joined by the Movement for the Unity of the Left (Movimiento para la Unidad de la Izquierda--MUI) and the Revolutionary Movement of the Christian Left (Movimiento Revolucionario de la Izquierda Cristiana--MRIC). Borja also had the support of the FRA (Alfarist Radical Front), the Maoist MPD, and CFP (Concentration of Popular Forces).

Borja took office in August 1988 promising to reverse completely the policy course of Febres Cordero. He called for a "pluralist cabinet" and a "government of consensus," meaning a national understanding (concertación) among workers, employers, and the government. His cabinet included seven ID members, four independents, and one DP member, as well as the two secretaries general, who belonged to the ID. Borja, a former professor of constitutional law at the Central University, made respect for legal guarantees a central theme in the selection of his ministers. His government energetically investigated alleged civil abuses perpetrated by Febres Cordero's government and secured several convictions.

The Borja government also took a new direction by making moves to appease opposition elements within military and guerrilla ranks. In November 1988, with the approval of the CSJ and several other institutions, including the military, Borja pardoned the air force paratroopers who had kidnaped Febres Cordero and had become, in jail, heroes among left-wing and populist parties. In early 1989, the Borja government negotiated an agreement with the Eloy Alfaro Popular Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Populares Eloy Alfaro--FAP- EL), popularly known as the Alfaro Lives, Damnit! (¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo!--AVC), a guerrilla/terrorist group founded in 1982. Borja also pardoned a number of imprisoned former air force members. In mid-1989 his legislative coalition with Hurtado's Christian Democratic party ended by mutual accord: Hurtado had opposed it from the start, and Borja no longer needed the agreement with the Christian Democrats, having won the support of other small parties.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress