2024 Referendum in Ecuador: Between Fear and Legitimacy

By Andrés Martínez-Moscoso, 31 May
Photo credit: Fuerzas Armadas del Ecuador via X
Photo credit: Fuerzas Armadas del Ecuador via X

In a period of intense violence linked to drug trafficking and organized crime, Ecuadorians went to the polls to consider President Noboa’s proposals on security, institutional reform, and economic reactivation. Beyond the substance of the proposals, victory on the security measures signals strong support for Noboa’s leadership, which has sought to emulate the strongman tactics in the region. However, will these (arguably necessary) security measures compromise democratic principles in the longer term? - writes Andrés Martínez-Moscoso

Introduction

In the past year, Ecuador has experienced one of the most violent periods in its history due to the terror sown by organized crime linked to drug trafficking. This has not only affected the quality of life of citizens and put their lives at risk but also damaged Ecuador’s fragile democratic institutions.

In May 2023, then-Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso Mendoza invoked the constitutionally permissible “muerte cruzada” (mutual death clause) to avoid impeachment, which allowed general elections to be brought forward and the dissolution of the National Congress. After a political campaign marked by the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, a political outsider emerged as the winner with the message of economic revitalization and promising an iron fist against crime, emulating the style of El Salvador’s strongman President Bukele.

Since December 2023, this young businessman, Daniel Noboa Azín, has served as Ecuador’s president, and will govern until May 2025 (finishing Lasso's term). His fresh agenda, driven through platforms like TikTok and online videos, has prioritized new types of media outreach. Capitalizing on his popularity, he called for an 11-question referendum on 21 April 2024 focusing on three aspects: security, institutional reform, and economic reactivation. Citizens supported nine of the eleven proposals, with a turnout of 72 per cent, providing the new president with a strong mandate for his next steps to combat organized crime.   

Background to the referendum

On 15 October 2023, an atypical electoral process concluded, marked by early elections, physical and symbolic political violence, and the decisive influence of young people in electing President Daniel Noboa Azín. Noboa’s primary challenge before the next election will be to reconcile political forces and, above all, to achieve peace in the country. During the early election campaign, substantive debate was largely absent, with little discussion on overcoming the economic, social and security crisis facing Ecuador; instead, social media discussions and coups d’effect through political stunts dominated the narratives.

In the first months of his presidency, Noboa reached governance agreements with the main political forces, enabling the passage of laws on economic and tax matters. Notably, he successfully increased the value added tax (IVA), which was raised from 12 to 15 per cent, claiming he needed to finance his “war” on drug gangs. However, the governance agreement with the Citizen Revolution Movement party, led by former President Rafael Correa, was broken following the police raid on the Embassy of Mexico to arrest former Vice President Jorge Glas Espinel, a key figure in promoting the “Correism” political ideology.

Noboa’s decision had international repercussions, including Mexico breaking diplomatic relations, condemnation by the Organization of American States, and even a lawsuit before the International Court of Justice for violating the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. But internally, however, the decision was viewed positively, linked to decisive action and the avoidance of impunity. But without Citizen Revolution Movement support, President Noboa opted to use referendums for the legal and constitutional changes he needed to govern. This approach paid off, and earned Noboa majority support in the referendum he called in April 2024.

Context of insecurity

In recent years, Ecuador has ceased to be the “island of peace” between Colombia and Peru, and has instead become one of the most violent countries in the region. According to Human Rights Watch, the homicide rate rose from 13.7 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2021 to 25.9 in 2022, rising again to 43 homicides per 100,000 population in 2023.

In recent years, Ecuador has ceased to be the “island of peace” between Colombia and Peru, and has instead become one of the most violent countries in the region . . .

One of the main causes is the use of Ecuadorian ports as a departure point for drugs from the region, destined for the United States and Europe. The lack of state presence in these areas, the extreme poverty of a substantial part of the population, corruption in different government institutions, and a prison crisis, among others, created an ideal environment for Mexican drug cartels to ally with Ecuadorian gangs, turning Ecuador into a major drug-exporting country.

These conditions have generated clashes between gangs fighting to take over the territory of their rivals, resulting in massacres, especially in the cities on the Ecuadorian coast. In January 2024, this led President Noboa to declare a Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC) and deployment of the army in response to the violence.

The five constitutional referendum questions

In February 2024, President Noboa proposed an 11-question referendum that included measures for constitutional reform and legislative changes. Five of these referendum questions implicated constitutional amendment.

The first question entailed a partial constitutional reform already approved by Congress and reviewed by the Constitutional Court, and which required ratification by the citizens. This reform would allow the army to complement the functions of the National Police in combating organized crime without the declaration of a state of emergency.

The remaining constitutional questions were split into two groups: two related to changes in the justice administration system, while the remaining two focused on ways to attract foreign investment and reactivate the national economy.

The first group of questions included the extradition of Ecuadorians, a measure proposed by former president Lasso and rejected by citizens in a previous popular consultation, but now supported due to the changed conditions and the people’s support for fighting transnational crime. In addition, the referendum proposed the creation of specialized courts in constitutional matters to address the incorrect application of jurisdictional guarantees by some judges in high-profile cases that had national repercussions.

The second group of questions pertained to economic reactivation, including the use of international arbitration as a method for settling disputes, and introduction of fixed-term and hourly labor contracts. The security proposals passed, but the economic questions were rejected.

The six questions in the popular consultation

Unlike the constitutional referendum, the six popular consultation questions sought legal changes, not constitutional ones, and focused on defining military collaboration with police and the fight against insecurity through increased criminal penalties for a range of offenses.

Three questions addressed the complementary work of the army, including control of weapons [...] allowing weapons seized from criminal gangs to be used by the police and the army . . . 

Three questions addressed the complementary work of the army, including control of weapons, ammunition and explosives in the streets and in prisons and allowing weapons seized from criminal gangs to be used by the police and the army, similar to the use of seized assets. Another question proposed defining the crime of possessing and carrying weapons designated for the exclusive use of the army and the National Police.

Finally, citizens were asked whether they agreed with increasing the penalties for crimes such as terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, murder, contract killings, human trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, arms trafficking, money laundering and illegal mining. Additionally, it was proposed that for certain crimes the penalty must be served through imprisonment, instead of allowing sentences to be served in a semi-open regime or eligibility for sentence reduction based on good behavior. The six questions in the popular consultation were approved.

Proliferation of referendums: real citizen participation or personal appraisal system?

The Constitution of Ecuador, enacted in 2008, is the country’s twentieth constitutional text. It recognizes direct democracy, representative democracy and participatory democracy. But despite what one might believe, the last four presidents have not used referendums as a tool to encourage greater participation of citizens in decision-making, but instead as a mechanism to measure the president’s acceptance and popularity.  

In this sense, some referendums, such as the 2023 omnibus referendum organized by Guillermo Lasso, saw a negative response. In such cases, citizens vote not only for the proposal, but also pronounce themselves against the person who proposed it. This phenomenon is not only evident in Ecuador, but also at a regional level, such as the peace process in Colombia, or the rejection of the 2023 draft Chilean Constitution.

Future projections

Ecuadorians have been living through a series of electoral processes in the last 12 months, including referendums, municipal elections, and early presidential elections. The measures taken by the government are more circumstantial than substantive; that is, they more closely contemplate the next election than the future of the next generation.

Ecuadorians supported nine of the eleven questions posed by Noboa — all security related — with approval of between 59 and 72 per cent of voters.

Ecuadorians supported nine of the eleven questions posed by Noboa — all security related — with approval of between 59 and 72 per cent of voters. They rejected all questions related to the alleged economic reactivation, perceived as neoliberal proposals that voters feared would lead to a regression in labor rights. Noboa's youthful leadership has been seen as synonymous with effectiveness, but the permanent militarization of Ecuador poses a significant challenge. In past instances, the presence of the army in the streets has led to human rights violations. For this reason, the State must ensure proper training and allow NGOs to carry out independent oversight to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future.

While the perception of insecurity has decreased in certain cities, murders among members of the mafias continue, as well as drug trafficking in the main ports of the country. For this reason, the debate at the national level will undoubtedly continue to focus on how to adequately manage insecurity, with the aim of restoring Ecuador to the “island of peace” it once was.

Professor Andrés Martínez-Moscoso is a professor of Constitutional Law at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador. He holds a PhD in Constitutional Law from Alicante University, Spain. He is a member of the Ecuadorian chapter of the Ibero-American Institute of Constitutional Law.

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Suggested citation: Andrés Martínez-Moscoso, ‘2024 Referendum in Ecuador: Between Fear and Legitimacy’, ConstitutionNet, International IDEA, 31 May 2024, https://constitutionnet.org/news/voices/2024-referendum-ecuador-between-fear-and-legitimacy

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.

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