Ecuador: Socialist Leads Race to Runoff in Presidential Election Marred by Assassination, Chinese Cyberattacks

Christian Zurita, presidential candidate for the Construye party, center right, applauds
Andres Yepez/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Establishment socialist candidate Luisa González and 35-year-old business heir Daniel Noboa will go to a second runoff election set for October following the general presidential election in Ecuador on Sunday – a vote tainted by widespread political violence and cybercrime.

Noboa and González faced off against six other candidates – one of whom, anti-socialist corruption crusader Fernando Villavicencio, died in a messy assassination that left 20 others injured on August 9. Villavicencio began his career as a journalist exposing the corruption of radical leftist ex-President Rafael Correa, González patron and currently a fugitive of justice manipulating Ecuadorian politics from a perch in Belgium. Villavicencio had promised the construction of a state-of-the-art new prison to fill with drug traffickers and corrupt politicians, and shortly before his death, he had accused high-ranking members of drug cartels by name of organizing attempts to kill him. Ecuadorian authorities have arrested several Colombian nationals in relation to the killing and claimed to have killed the main gunman in a shootout during the assassination.

Villavicencio’s political movement, Construye (“Build”), replaced him on the ballot with fellow journalist and old college friend Christian Zurita, who came in third place on Sunday.

According to Ecuador’s National Electoral Council (CNE), which organizes elections and tallies votes, González received the most votes at 33.31 percent, followed by Noboa with 23.66 percent. The late Villavicencio’s ticket, led by Zurita, came in third with 16.51 percent, conservative law-and-order candidate Jan Topic came in fourth with 14.68 percent, and the other four candidates, most of them left wing, did not enter the double digits.

Given the high positions that Noboa, Zurita, and Topic achieved, González appears to have benefitted from a fracturing of the anti-socialist vote; her left-wing contenders received marginal support. In a runoff election, Noboa will have to court voters who chose other alternatives, likely out of distaste for Correa’s socialist coalition, giving him a potential edge, if he can exploit it.

The president of the CNE, Diana Atamaint, announced following the election that the agency’s online platform for absentee voting was the target of a wave of cyberattacks from abroad. Among the countries she named as origin nations of the attacks were China, Russia, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

“The platform for absentee voting suffered cyberattacks that affected the fluidity to enter the voting page,” Atamaint said. “We clarify and emphasize that confirmed votes were not tampered with.”

While the CNE claimed that no votes were affected by the attacks – which, according to Ecuadorians abroad speaking to Infobae, made it impossible to access the page to choose a candidate – some reports indicate that absentee voter turnout was noticeably low during a particularly contentious presidential election. More than 90 percent of registered voters in Europe, Asia, and Oceania did not participate in the election, according to some reports:

The CNE has not indicated that the results of the election will be affected by any investigations into the cyberattacks.

If González wins, she will become the first female president in Ecuador’s history. If Noboa wins, he will become the youngest-ever Ecuadorian president. The election was already an unprecedented event in the history of the country, as outgoing President Guillermo Lasso, a conservative, called the election in May, using a never-before-triggered constitutional provision known as “mutually assured death,” which dissolves both Congress and the presidency. Lasso said the move was necessary as a result of left-wing lawmakers’ constant attempts to impeach him, which made it impossible for either branch of government to function:

González was leading in presidential election polls for months, so her victory was not a surprise. Noboa, however, had not registered as a serious threat to win the election, regularly polling below Villavicencio and Topic. Polls before Villavicencio’s assassination showed as many as 40 percent of eligible voters undecided, however, and Noboa appeared to take advantage of the fluid situation to elevate his profile following Villavicencio’s killing. Last Thursday, Noboa claimed that he, too, was the target of an assassination attempt in Durán, one of the most violent areas of the country.

“An attempt was just made in Durán against the caravan in which we were mobilizing, thank God we were unharmed,” Noboa posted on his Twitter account. “Fear and intimidation have no place in the country we want and which we are committed to changing once and for all.”

Local police said the shooting Noboa referenced was a criminal event with no apparent relation to Noboa or his campaign rally.

Noboa, of the “National Democracy Alliance,” is the son of banana industry magnate Álvaro Noboa and a former lawmaker, having lost his seat in the “mutually assured death” dissolution. He has studiously avoided identifying himself as left- or right-wing and offered moderate proposals during the August 13 presidential debate – a bizarre scenario as the seven candidates debated alongside an empty podium meant for Villavicencio.

Among the proposals Noboa presented during the debate were a significant decentralization of power from the federal Ecuadorian government to the provinces, heavy investment in large-scale agriculture, and an emphasis on moving away from fossil fuels, despite Ecuador’s status as a major oil producer.

Baffled political commentators told Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo that the debate must have swayed a large number of undecided voters.

“We can only assume that the debate as well as the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio were decisively influential,” analyst Simón Pachano told the newspaper. “Despite this, both these facts are insufficient to explain the vote for an outsider (Topic) and a barely-known lawmaker (Noboa). We are possibly facing the phenomenon repeating itself in most Latin American countries, which is the anti-system vote.”

Another political commentator, Mauricio Gándara, praised Noboa for “demonstrating his talent and poise as an even-keeled, serene, non-confrontational man.”

“The young politician showed himself to be a candidate by his own talents, not because he’s daddy’s boy,” Gándara said.

Correa, commenting on the election as a criminal fugitive in Belgium, repeated his claims on Sunday night that Villavicencio’s assassination was a right-wing conspiracy to undermine González. Correa had personally threatened Villavicencio in November, writing on Twitter, “Your party will soon be over.”

Despite this, Correa claimed that González would have won the presidency in a first round – which requires upwards of 50 percent of the vote – if Villavicencio had lived:

“It would have been good, healthy for the country against the crisis, the little time that the next government is going to have for there to be a win in one round,” the corrupt former president said. “We were going to win in the first round and the Fernando Villavicencio tragedy happened which for me was a plot, a conspiracy.”

“They stuck him in a car alone so that they could run him down, two minutes later he arrives to his armored car 15 minutes later social media was full of edited videos of us and this whole narrative that we wanted to avenge ourselves and we had ordered him to be killed,” Correa continued. “Even if he had died in an accident, you know, the natural empathy for the person, the victim, for his political movement and aversion for those who were his adversaries in life… that did us a lot of damage.”

Correa did not offer specific commentary on Noboa.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.


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