Elections in Ecuador are very different from those in the U.S. To begin with, Ecuador does not have a long history of democracy; we only restarted democratic elections in 1979, after a series of dictators. Since then, democracy has not been entirely effective — from 1996 to 2006, we had seven presidents. This period included several removals of presidents by coups d’etat and the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds.
Rafael Correa won the presidency in 2007 and has remained in office for seven years, though a normal term is supposed to be four years. That’s because in 2009, Correa forced a new election, which allowed him an extended term, as part of a change in the constitution. One year later, a brief police rebellion created a situation that has since been called an attempted coup. Another point of contention is Correa’s power over the media — he has taken strong measures against his critics in the media, including a lawsuit he filed that nearly forced the shutdown of one of the country’s largest newspapers. Though opposition parties — of which there are many; Correa’s opposition are very divided — manage to find a voice, it is not as ubiquitous as that of the current president.
In sum, democracy in Ecuador is tenuous.
Unlike in the U.S., voting is mandatory. When a person votes, they receive a card, which is required for most transactions (like opening a bank account). If you fail to vote you will have to pay a fine to receive a valid card.
To maintain order on Election Day, the government banned the sale of alcohol for the three days prior to the election. Political parties were also not allowed to campaign during this time. At the voting sites, crowds are sober, but not just because of the alcohol law: there is a strong presence of heavily armed military personnel and election overseers. Women and men vote in separate areas (I don’t know why), and at least three people staff each table probably 10 percent of the country are needed just to run the elections. At my polling station, at least 12 soldiers kept watch over a gymnasium crammed with about a few hundred people, mostly ensuring no one stepped up to the table before his or her turn.
At the gymnasium, I had to find the right line, and after a long wait I handed my documents to one of the three women staffing my table. In return she handed me a stack of papers with many color photos and names. The still-high level of illiteracy in Ecuador has led parties to use clear-colored symbols and numbers, and the electoral commission prints color photos of each candidate next to her or his name. If you vote for a party line it might be list number 35, and you would recognize the fluorescent green for “Alianza de País,” the president’s party. With a black magic marker I made a line down the lists of my choice for president and assembly members (not necessarily No. 35).
As I write this the ballots are being counted, and it seems that most Ecuadorians did vote list 35. The local newspaper has just called the election for Correa.