Government and Politics
ONE OF THE LEAST POLITICALLY stable of the South American republics for most of its history, Ecuador had 86 governments and 17 constitutions in its first 159 years of independence. Only twenty of those governments resulted from popular elections, and many of the elections were fraudulent. José María Velasco Ibarra, who completed only one of his five terms as president, often stated, "Ecuador is a very difficult country to govern."
Ecuador had four successive democratic elections from 1948 to 1960, but the country did not experience relative political stability under democratic rule again until the 1980s. Seven years of military dictatorship ended with the presidential inauguration of Jaime Roldós Aguilera on August 10, 1979. After Roldós died in an airplane crash on May 24, 1981, Vice President Osvaldo Hurtado Larrea assumed the presidency. The completion of the Hurtado/Roldós administration and the constitutional and orderly transfer of power--the first such transfer in twenty-four years--to conservative León Febres Cordero Ribadeneyra (1984-88) in August 1984 seemed to affirm the restoration of democracy in Ecuador. Nevertheless, as Roldós himself had cautioned shortly before taking office, the nation had only a formalistic and ritualistic democratic tradition.
Indeed, Ecuador has been shaken periodically since 1984 by bitter conflicts between the executive branch on the one side and the unicameral legislature and the judiciary on the other. These clashes were particularly pronounced during Febres Cordero's polemical administration. His authoritarian rule also provoked military mutinies and even his brief abduction by rebellious troops. Although battered, Ecuador's democratic system survived, and Febres Cordero transferred power to his long-time rival, Rodrigo Borja Cevallos, in August 1988. Whereas Febres Cordero, a millionaire businessman from Guayaquil, had advocated a free-market economy, strong executive control, and close alignment with the United States, Borja, a social democrat from Quito, espoused a mixed economy, a pluralist government, and a nonaligned foreign policy. In his first two years, Borja succeeded in softening the impact of his predecessor's legacy of political, economic, and social crises.
Despite a decade of civilian democratic rule marked by three peaceful transitions of government, analysts generally agreed that the political system remained vulnerable. Political scientist John D. Martz noted, for instance, that the transition to a third democratic government in 1988 provided "little reason to believe that the fragile democratic system in Ecuador had been strengthened, nor that the historic pattern of instability had been fundamentally reversed or modified."
The destabilizing conflicts among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government resulted primarily from idiosyncrasies of Ecuador's institutional structure. For example, the judiciary, despite being independent, lacked the authority needed to serve as an effective check on the abuse of presidential powers. Although the Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Supremo de Justicia--CSJ) carried out many judicial duties normally expected of a nation's highest court, it did not rule on constitutional issues. A nonjudicial appendage of the National Congress (Congreso Nacional--hereafter, Congress), the Tribunal of Constitutional Guarantees (Tribunal de Garantías Constitucionales--TGC), exercised that function, thereby giving the legislative body the power to, in effect, control interpretation of the Constitution.
The traditional, deep-seated division between the liberal, trade-oriented, tropical Costa (coastal region) and the conservative, agrarian-oriented Sierra (Andean highlands) also helped explain Ecuador's bitter infighting over political and economic affairs. This fundamental division pitted the Pacific port city of Guayaquil, the country's principal economic center, against the highland capital of Quito. The enmity between natives of Guayaquil and of Quito was reflected in the alignment of the country's sixteen registered political parties, in the 1988 elections, as well as in the refusal of outgoing President Febres Cordero, a native of Guayaquil, to speak to his successor, Rodrigo Borja, a native of Quito, or even to personally pass the presidential sash to him on August 10, 1988. According to political scientist and former president Hurtado, rivalry among provinces and regions for central government attention in the form of development projects, principally road construction, also was a major source of political conflict.
Although Ecuador's political parties and its free and partisan press participated in a lively and contentious democratic political process, parties suffered from factionalism, weak organization, lack of mass participation, and blurred ideologies, as well as from the competing influences of populism and militarism. Analysts generally agreed that the proliferation of small parties and the need to negotiate alliances contributed significantly to political instability in the 1980s.
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