CIVICUS speaks with Estefanía Terán, advocacy director of Grupo FARO, about the role of organised civil society in Ecuador's presidential elections and the challenges civil society faces today. Grupo FARO is an independent research and action centre in Ecuador that produces evidence to influence public policy and promotes social transformation and innovation.
What roles does Ecuadorian civil society play during electoral processes?
Political parties do not reach out much to civil society organisations (CSOs) to take on board their proposals. While some turn to CSOs for information, others hire private consultants. This happens because very few political organisations have within their structures a team or the necessary tools to develop quality government plans, with clear content, and which respond to the needs of the population or their voters, and are rooted in a diagnosis based on rigorous and objective technical research.
During elections, CSOs develop initiatives to promote informed voting. They build web platforms and other communication tools to give visibility from a citizen perspective, to the proposals of the various contenders. Through this work, in the latest elections, initiatives were organised according to ideological criteria and in terms of their response to the Sustainable Development Goals. Likewise, with the aim of highlighting the ‘how’ of the proposals, which in general only focus on the ‘what’, forums and debates are held among the candidates.
Grupo FARO is part of a group of CSOs that promotes informed voting; within this framework we developed the Ecuador Decide initiative. This initiative, which has been activated at elections since 2017 – which means it has been implemented on four occasions – aims to encourage voting based on the programmatic proposals of the different candidates and the political organisations that support them. To this end, it compiles, disseminates and analyses the contents of all their government plans.
In the 2021 elections, Grupo FARO analysed the government plans of all the presidential candidates. We found that, of the 1,500 proposals identified in 16 areas of national relevance, only 55.5 per cent contained information on how they would be implemented, and only 26.7 per cent made clear who their target audience was.
In addition, based on our experience organising debates among candidates during local elections, we assisted the National Electoral Council in regulating presidential debates, which became mandatory after the Democracy Code was reformed in February 2020.
What are the causes and consequences of the low quality of political plans?
The low quality of plans for government, which makes them inadequate instruments to inform the population about the positions of the various candidates and political organisations, is due to the lack of enforcement and regulation by the governing body, which does not require that these documents meet minimum standards and be comparable with each other. In fact, we have analysed some plans that were three pages long and others of more than a hundred pages. Moreover, in many cases they differ from the candidate’s discourse or include proposals outside the candidate’s field of competence.
It is not common for voters to access these documents to get informed, and therefore, they serve no other purpose than to fulfil a formal requirement to register a candidacy. This contradicts the fact that one of the grounds for requesting the revocation of the mandate of popularly elected authorities is their non-compliance with their plans.
The high degree of generality of the proposals contained in government plans means that the candidates’ campaign discourse is aimed at the median voter, and that strategically the candidates do not differentiate themselves. This fragments voter preferences, creating complications, as seen in the very narrow margin between the candidates placing second and third in the latest elections, Guillermo Lasso, of Movimiento Creando Oportunidades, and Yaku Pérez, of Movimiento de Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik. This meant that the winner in the second electoral round was someone who in the first round had not even reached 20 per cent of the total vote: he came to power as a result of a compulsory vote, with very low legitimacy, and a high risk of facing governance problems in the medium term.
What challenges does Ecuadorian civil society face under the new government?
Although no specific proposals were identified regarding the promotion of civil society participation, President Lasso has sought to send a friendly and collaborative message. However, due to its business background, the government tends to equate civil society with the private sector. This results in two challenges for civil society. The first is to differentiate itself from the private sector and the second is to work harmoniously with the private sector. To this end, it must promote an exercise of reflection on the current role of civil society and highlight the value that its involvement adds to public management. Furthermore, it must insist that this participation is not limited to a few organisations that are close to the government, but that it is open and inclusive, plural and diverse.
This implies, on the one hand, pushing forward a process of organisational strengthening of civil society for collaborative work among itself and with others. And, on the other hand, it implies initiating a process of learning and trust building with the private sector. There is a great opportunity for organised civil society to contribute so that companies’ support for social causes is done with transparency and public oversight and based on international principles for the effective functioning of public-private partnerships, guaranteeing quality projects and actions going beyond corporate profit.
The prelude to developing such alliances should be the passing of a minimum CSO law to give us legal security and protect us from the discretion of the incumbent government. At the moment we are regulated by an executive decree and under a logic of concession and control, rather than registration and co-responsibility. Ensuring the enactment of a law that contributes to building an enabling environment and promoting participation is therefore another challenge we face as a sector during this presidential term. In partnership with the Ecuadorian Confederation of Civil Society Organisations and other allied organisations, Grupo FARO is pushing a proposal for a minimum law, which in the previous National Assembly reached the stage of developing a report for second debate.
Civic space in Ecuador rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.