Electoral Systems

Ecuador: The Search for Democratic Governance

By Andres Mejia Acosta,

Ecuador is one of the longest-lived third wave democracies in South America. In the late 70´s, the military government sponsored a peaceful transition to democratic rule by calling several social and political groups to the drafting of a new constitution. The Constitution was ratified by a referendum in 1978 and the democratically elected government took office in 1979. The new electoral system was designed to serve very specific purposes:'to reduce the number of parties, to encourage discipline and loyalty in the political parties, and to encourage popular participation'. The electoral law included the enfranchisement of the illiterate, provisions to create national parties (appealing to cross national constituencies), and a vote threshold to eliminate all parties that performed poorly in two consecutive elections. As we will see, different electoral reforms had an insignificant impact for articulating a highly volatile electorate or for reducing the highly fragmented party system that has characterized Ecuadorian politics over the past two decades.

Presidents in Ecuador are elected for a four-year period and are banned from immediate reelection. Traditionally, a plurality rule was used to elect presidential candidates, but the close outcome of the 1968 election (in which the top three candidates were separated by only two percentage points), inspired reformers to adopt a majority run off or two-round system (TRS). Reformers believed that the rule would help reduce the number of parties and endorse the presidential mandate with greater electoral legitimacy. However, the election system weakened the party system structure in three significant ways. First, it discouraged the formation of electoral coalitions in the first round, since every party or political movement played their chances of moving to the second round (after all, a candidate only needed to get an average of 26 percent of valid votes to be in the run off). Secondly, the system allowed the participation of political outsiders who campaigned on charisma and personal attributes rather than on party ideology. Thirdly, because legislators were elected on the first round of the presidential race, the largest legislative party was not always the same as the president´s party. This feature of the electoral calendar challenged, among other factors, the formation of presidential-led coalitions in Congress.

For the most part of the democratic period, the unicameral Congress featured a mixed composition of legislators. A fixed number of 'National'deputies that ranged from 12 (from 1979 to 1996) to 20 (in 1998) were elected from a single district.'Provincial' deputies on the other hand, were elected through proportional representation from the 22 provinces, in a varying number from 57 (in 1979) to 103 (in 1998). While 'National' deputies were elected for a four-year term, 'Provincial' deputies were renewed in midterm elections, every two years. Immediate legislative reelection was banned by the 1979 Constitution, in order 'to avoid the 'fossilization' of the political elite.' The prohibition, in place from 1979 to 1994, discouraged the formation of legislative careers. Like similar cases in Costa Rica and Mexico, only ten percent of Congresspeople returned to serve for at least another term in office when it was allowed by the constitution. The frequent renewal of deputies through midterm elections without immediate reelection made of Congress a highly volatile, inexperienced legislative body, unaccountable to the electorate and short sighted in its policy-making activity. The rule used to convert votes into legislative seats was a closed-list PR system, see List PR based on a combined formula of quota and largest reminders (Hare and D´Hondt). This rule was first used in 1945 and remained in place throughout much of the contemporary democratic period until 1996, and it yielded a slight tendency to reward larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. Candidates who wanted to maximize their electoral possibilities had to bargain with party leaders the order of their appearance in party lists, but once elected, they showed little or no discipline with party lines. Moreover, without the possibility for reelection, legislators frequently switched parties in order to accommodate their personal needs and enhance carreer prospects outside Congress.

In recent years, several social and ethnic groups in Ecuador voiced their concerns for adopting a more representative and participatory electoral system that would give them greater leverage in the policy-making process. The increasing popular discontent produced the civilian overthrown of President Bucaram in February of 1997, who was accused of major corruption scandals. The political crises triggered a process of constitutional reforms through the election of a National Assembly the following year. Several major changes resulted form the 1998 Constitutional Assembly. In order to encourage pre-electoral alliances, the Assembly approved a modified two round system by which a presidential candidate only needs to obtain 40% of the votes in the first round to be elected president. The removal of midterm legislative elections (together with the abolition of the non-reelection rule in 1996) sought to promote continuity and stability of legislative parties. Ecuador also adopted a peculiar open-list PR system for the allocation of legislative seats. According to this system of "unlimited vote" the voter has the right to cast as many votes as there are seats to be filled in each district (the size of the district magnitude) and may give those votes to candidates all of the same party, or may freely vote for candidates across parties. Although proportional in theory, this system, used in the 1998 legislative elections, rewarded the top voted candidates in each district using plurality criteria. Different from proportional representation systems, there was no "pooling" at the party level, that is, party leaders had no control over allocation of seats. It is also not PR, because the criterion for allocating seats is personal, not partisan. Even if voters cast all their votes for candidates of the same party, votes are counted for each individual candidate on the list, not as a party vote. The system further weakened the role of political parties in the Ecuadorian democracy by making them more dependent on the followings of their local caciques and candidates who were able to cultivate a personal vote.

Aware of the constitutional and methodological inconsistencies of the previous electoral rule, Congress approved a reform of the Electoral Law in March of 2000 to introduce 'vote pooling'. In this modified version, each party pools votes obtained by individual candidates and the total sum of votes obtained will be used to distribute seats according to a D´Hondt formula of proportional representation. Party leaders in turn distribute allocated seats to the most voted candidates within each party. The revised version of the electoral formula will be first applied at the national level in the 2002 general elections. Finally, the election of National deputies was also eliminated for the 2002 election, leaving Congress with provincial representations only.

Despite extreme and frequent experimentation with its electoral framework, Ecuador has not been able to promote an effective combination of representative politicians with effective government. Over time, there has been a permanent government effort to manipulate the electoral system to reduce party system fragmentation and encourage the formation of pre electoral alliances that could eventually lend support to government-led initiatives in the legislature. The adoption of a two round system of presidential election and its modified threshold or the overrepresenting of larger parties through a modified PR formula were meant to give both legitimacy as well as ample party support for presidential candidates when taking office. Opposed to the logic of 'majority building', different social and ethnic groups, as well as entrepreneurial politicians claimed that the electoral system privileged party interests over citizens´ demands and sought to relax electoral restrictions to political participation and promoted the candidacies of 'independent'politicians. In turn, the proliferation of independent candidates in the mid and late 90´s made coalition formation in Congress unpredictible.

The constitutional battle over the requisites to maintain party registry well illustrates the tension between governability and representation. The 1979 Law of Political Parties established that parties that did not obtain 5% of effective votes in two consecutive elections would lose their electoral registry. This prohibition was declared unconstitutional in 1983, reinstated in 1994 as 4%, abolished in 1996 and reinstated in 1998 as 5% again. While the advocates of governability argued that smaller parties contributed to legislative fragmentation and unpredictable coalition building in Congress, defenders of representation argued that Ecuadorian minorities deserved to be represented by those parties. In the meantime, small and usually personalistic parties were able to survive for several years.

Ecuador has not found a power sharing formula to promote democratic governance. One open issue for debate is the adoption of a mixed-member system for the legislature. In principle, this could reconcile the need for direct provincial representation of the heterogeneous Ecuadorian population with the election of nationally oriented politicians. Another issue is the introduction of some parliamentary features like cabinet sharing would make potential coalition partners (parties) more accountable to their electorate and responsible to the government. In any case, an effective electoral system would need to mature over time (without being subject to sudden changes) and would have to take into consideration other political institutions and historical traditions of the country.

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