The Ecuadorean President’s Leave of Absence

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By: Carolina Curvale, Guest Blogger

Photo Description: Guayaquil mayor Jaime Nebot with Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa.
Photo Credit: Municipio: Jaime Nebot

On January 2, Ecuador’s National Assembly approved President Rafael Correa’s request to take a 30-day leave of absence during the campaign for the February 17 general elections. The law allows for a maximum of 30 days of unpaid leave for a candidate running for immediate reelection. Correa’s leave will be effective from January 15—11 days after the beginning of the electoral campaign—until February 14. The president stated that he had requested the leave to ensure that government business is unaffected by his campaigning, and also as “a courtesy.”

In the 2009 version of the electoral law, candidates were required to take a leave of absence if they were running for immediate reelection. A controversial 2012 reform, which was promoted by Correa’s Proud and Sovereign Fatherland (PAIS) political movement, made the leave optional. Correa had complained that other presidents in the region who sought reelection, such as Barack Obama and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, were not required to take leave, and were not perceived as less democratic for not having done so. Furthermore, Correa did not show restraint in past elections when it came to campaigning during official public appearances. Given this history, his decision to request leave is rather puzzling.

What’s in it for Correa?

There are advantages to being a full-time candidate. Correa will have the opportunity to campaign, visit every province, and talk to grassroots organizations and voters in places where he needs to increase support. This unusual leave of absence, in principle, also makes Correa look democratic and fair, and appears to be an effort to level the playing field. However, many doubt that the incumbent will refrain from using state resources to campaign while on leave. For instance, Norman Wray, a presidential candidate and a former Correa supporter, has questioned Correa’s use of a state-owned helicopter to travel during the campaign.

The electoral authorities have failed in the past to apply corrective measures to the government’s excessive use of public resources to campaign for PAIS candidates, especially regarding television and radio advertisements. With Correa temporarily stepping down, perhaps electoral officials will be under less public pressure to intervene. In addition, as part of his crusade against privately owned media, Correa took steps to limit critical press coverage of the race. Making use of his line-item veto power, he introduced reforms to the electoral law that bar the media from indirectly promoting a candidate or a political position during the campaign. The press freedom watchdog organization Fundamedios fears that prohibiting the media from expressing a preference for a candidate or from “damaging the image of a candidate” will result in self-censorship.

The main disadvantage of stepping down during the campaign is the loss of some exposure to the public. The daily business of the executive office provides opportunities for Correa to reach out to voters. As shown in prior elections, he does not shy away from promoting government-sponsored candidates and criticizing members of the opposition while conducting official business. Other government officials, however, may effectively campaign for Correa and other PAIS candidates in his absence. For example, the president announced that he would not deliver his weekly broadcasts during the campaign in order to “preserve the legitimacy of the process and avoid claims that we [the government political movement] have an advantage.” Nevertheless, Vice President Lenín Moreno has taken over the broadcasts, in which the accomplishments of Correa’s “citizen revolution” are typically praised at length.

Eyes on the legislative elections

With a solid lead in the presidential polls, Correa’s focus is on winning a majority in the National Assembly. In the 2009 elections, PAIS was a few votes short of the 63 seats required to pass legislation on its own; in addition, some PAIS members defected, making legislative approval of his proposals a major headache for the president. This experience is in stark contrast to the days when PAIS had an overwhelming majority in the Constituent Assembly that drafted the current constitution and passed key pieces of legislation. With his eyes on the 2013 legislative elections, Correa introduced, via line-item veto, a change in the seat-allocation formula that favors large parties and is therefore expected to benefit PAIS next month.

In short, the leave of absence is unlikely to reduce Correa’s public exposure or access to state resources. Rather than a courtesy, it was a strategic move aimed at gaining face and securing time to campaign, and particularly at locking in a legislative majority for the next four years.

* Carolina Curvale is an analyst for Freedom in the World.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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