Ecuador Holds Tense Presidential Debate Less than a Week After Candidate Killed

The seven remaining presidential candidates in Ecuador’s upcoming election held a debate
Facebook/Consejo Nacional Electoral del Ecuador

The seven remaining presidential candidates in Ecuador’s upcoming election held a debate on Sunday under the shadow of the assassination of the eighth, Fernando Villavicencio, who was gunned down less than a week ago outside a campaign event.

Villavicencio, a journalist by trade, was running a campaign to eradicate corruption and limit the “colonizing” influence of China in the country. He had repeatedly received death threats, many allegedly from drug cartels, and had dared cartel assassins to find him during one of his final public appearances, boasting that he refused to wear a bulletproof vest. He was representing a party coalition known as the Construye Movement, which is now struggling to replace him on the ballot with no historical precedent and minimal legal guidance on how to do so given his death.

Ecuadoran journalist Fernando Villavicencio poses for photos in Lima on April 19, 2017 (ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP via Getty Images).

The shocking assassination, which left at least nine others injured, has traumatized the country and thrust into chaos an election in which as many as 40 percent of voters remained undecided before the killing. Sunday’s debate, reports from Latin America detailed, focused on the dramatic rise in violent crime in the country and featured multiple candidates vying for Villavicencio’s votes with promises to eradicate corruption.

Five of the seven candidates in the election are left wing: establishment socialist Luisa González; indigenous socialist leader Yaku Pérez; left-wing former Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner; rural movement leader Bolívar Armijos; and progressive businessman Xavier Hervas. The two remaining candidates are banana industry scion Daniel Noboa, whose campaign platform has no explicit ideology, and center-right businessman Jan Topic.

Otto Sonnenholzner, presidential candidate for the Let´s Act Alliance, speaks prior to the presidential debate in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023. Ecuador goes to the polls in a presidential election on Aug. 20. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

Otto Sonnenholzner, presidential candidate for the Let´s Act Alliance, speaks prior to the presidential debate in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Aug. 13, 2023. Ecuador goes to the polls in a presidential election on Aug. 20 (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa).

González received the endorsement of former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who remains the most powerful left-wing politician in the country despite living in exile in Belgium since 2018 after prosecutors accused him of attempting to order the kidnapping of an opposition candidate and of engaging in corruption while in office. Correa served as president from 2007 to 2017. Correa had publicly threatened Villavicencio before the latter’s death. As a journalist and later the head of a congressional investigative committee, Villavicencio had accused Correa of signing lucrative deals with China that defrauded Ecuador of billions of dollars in oil profits.

After a moment of silence for Villavicencio, and before an eighth, empty podium, the debate tackled the escalating crime wave in the country, environmentalism, and how to improve the economy, among other issues. González made her answers largely a promise to return to Correa-era hardline socialist policies, which brought Ecuador into the political orbit of China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, among others. Given her proximity to Correa, González faced questions about Correa’s attempts to imprison Villavicencio – including a 2014 prosecution for “insulting” the president, which is not a crime in Ecuador. Sonnenholzer challenged her to justify Correa’s “persecution,” which González failed to directly answer. Sonnenholzer and Topic both also accused González’s left-wing coalition of years of corruption, echoing Villavicencio’s research.

Reportedly the most tense moment in the debate occurred when González attempted to accuse Topic’s corporations of not paying their taxes. The candidate accused Topic of owing $32 million in back taxes, which he denied, replying, “If you add up the taxes of everybody here and multiply it by 15 I’m still the one paying the most in taxes here – you’re the ones used to robbing the state.” Topic also noted that the head of González’s political coalition, Correa, is a fugitive.

Topic and Xavier Hervas both used their platforms to denounce corruption and crime. Topic promised a “firm hand” against crime – the only candidate to call for intensified law enforcement efforts against criminals on a large scale – while Hervas invoked Villavicencio by name, asserting, “What I am doing is repeating what Fernando Villavicencio denounced.”

As the debate transpired, the Construye movement continued its attempts to ensure it placed a candidate on the ballot. On Sunday, it announced that it would nominate Christian Zurita, a journalist who had worked extensively on a major corruption exposé with Villavicencio, as its presidential candidate. Zurita, who went to college with Villavicencio, aided in the revelation of a scandal known as arroz verde (“green rice”), which accused the Correa administration of receiving large bribes from private businesses and led to Correa’s conviction in absentia. The National Electoral Council (CNE), which had previously refused to move the dates of the debate or the election on August 20, denied Zurita entry into the televised event on the grounds that he was not legally a candidate yet.

Construye’s lawyers remain at work with the CNE to ensure that Zurita appears on the ballot as of Monday. The Ecuadorian newspaper La Hora detailed a complicated process for the party coalition, as Ecuador’s electoral law does not provide for how to change a ballot in the event of a candidate dying so soon before the election. CNE leaders confirmed that time still remains to formalize Zurita’s candidacy, but the process of ensuring his entry is lengthy and will take up time that would have been valuable for campaigning.

The 2023 Ecuadorian presidential election was already an unprecedented one, as conservative current President Guillermo Lasso triggered it by using an Ecuadorian constitutional provision known as “muerte cruzada,” or, roughly, “mutually assured death,” which dissolved the National Assembly, the federal legislature, and triggered a presidential election. Lasso claimed the move was necessary because the left’s incessant, and failed, attempts to impeach him had made governing the country impossible, and he announced he would not run for a second term.

“They [the opposition] have activated 14 political trials [impeachments] to generate instability in the cabinet and hinder the work of the government,” Lasso said in May, announcing his dissolution of the Assembly. “It is unacceptable that a great part of the time of the ministers and their team be dedicated to resisting the political harassment of the National Assembly instead of working towards solving the problems of Ecuadorian families.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.